Public involvement in UK health and care research 1995–2020: reflections from a witness seminar

Marisha Emily Palm, David Evans, Sophie Staniszewska, Louca-Mai Brady, Bec Hanley, Kate Sainsbury, Derek Stewart, Paula Wray

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Background: Public involvement is important to the relevance and impact of health and care research, as well as supporting the democratisation of research. In 2020, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) reorganized and eliminated INVOLVE, an internationally recognised group that had played a central role in public involvement in the UK since 1996. Its remit was subsumed within a new center tasked with public involvement, participant recruitment, and evidence dissemination. A year later, in 2021, interested parties came together to discuss the evolution of INVOLVE and consider how to retain some of the important historical details and learn lessons from its long and important tenure. Methods: We hosted a witness seminar in 2022 that was one of four work groups and brought together public involvement leaders that had been part of the conception, development, and evolution of INVOLVE between 1995 and 2020. Witness seminars are a method used to capture the complexity and nuance of historical events or initiatives. They support critical thinking and reflection rather than simple commemoration. We identified those who had played a role in INVOLVE history, ensuring diversity of perspective, and invited them to attend and speak at the seminar. This took place during two sessions where witnesses provided their recollections and participated in a facilitated discussion. Results: Across the two online sessions, 29 witnesses attended and contributed thoughts and recollections. Two authors (SS, MP) identified six themes that were described in the witness seminar report and have been discussed, elaborated, and illustrated with witness quotations. These are: the importance of historical perspective; INVOLVE as a social movement; how INVOLVE worked (e.g. its hospitality, kindness, and inclusivity); INVOLVE as a quiet disruptor; public involvement evidence, knowledge, and learning; the infrastructure, processes, and systems developed by INVOLVE; and the demise and loss of INVOLVE as an internationally recognized center of excellence. Discussion: The authors of this commentary reflected on the discussions that took place during the witness seminar and the themes that emerged, and share six broad learnings for future practice; (1) it is important to create and nurture public involvement communities of practice; (2) collaborative ways of working support open discussion amongst diverse groups; (3) be aware of the tensions between activism and being part of the establishment; (4) continued efforts should be made to build an evidence base for public involvement practice; (5) there are both benefits and drawbacks to having a centralized organization leading public involvement; and (6) support for public involvement in research requires a fit-for-purpose tendering process that embeds robust public involvement.
Original languageEnglish
Article number65
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalResearch Involvement and Engagement
Issue number1
Early online date22 Jun 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 22 Jun 2024


  • Public engagement
  • Patient and public involvement
  • Witness seminar
  • Social movement
  • NIHR
  • National Institute for Health and Care Research
  • Public involvement


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