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Research Questions

  1. What are the characteristics of methods to identify research gaps, establish research needs, and determine research priorities?
  2. To what extent have methods been used by research funding organizations and what was the impact?

Well-defined, systematic, and transparent processes to identify health research gaps, needs, and priorities are vital to ensuring that available funds target areas with the greatest potential for impact. This report documents a scoping review of published methods used for identifying health research gaps, establishing research needs, and determining research priorities and provides relevant information on 362 studies.

Of the 362 studies, 167 were linked to funding decisionmaking and underwent a more detailed data abstraction process. The authors noted that most studies focused on physical health conditions, but few addressed psychological health conditions. The most frequent method for identifying research gaps, needs, and priorities was to convene workshops or conferences. One-third of studies employed quantitative methods, and nearly as many used the James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnerships approach. Other methods included literature reviews, qualitative methods, consensus methods, and reviews of source materials. The criterion most widely applied to determine health research gaps, needs, and priorities was the importance to stakeholders, followed by the potential value and feasibility of carrying out the research. The two largest stakeholder groups were researchers and clinicians. More than one-half the studies involved patients and the public as stakeholders. Very few studies have evaluated the impact of methods used to identify research gaps, needs, and priorities. 

This report provides a roadmap of methods used for identifying health research gaps, needs, and priorities, which may help accelerate progress toward validating methods that ensure the effective targeting of funds to meet the greatest areas of need and to maximize impact.

Key Findings

  • A total of 362 studies were included that used approaches to identify research gaps, establish research needs, and determine research priorities. Of these, 167 described methods to identify health research gaps, needs, or priorities that were linked to funding decisionmaking.
  • The top three most frequently used methods were the convening of workshops, meetings, or conferences; quantitative methods; and the James Lind Alliance approach.
  • The criterion most widely applied across studies to establish health research gaps, needs, or priorities was the importance to stakeholders.
  • Researchers constituted one of the largest stakeholder groups, with representation across more than one-half of the studies, and were second only to clinicians across studies.
  • Only 4 percent of studies reported conducting some type of impact evaluation.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two


  • Chapter Three


  • Chapter Four


  • Appendix A

    Description of Selected Methods with Structured Protocols

  • Appendix B

    Search Strategies

  • Appendix C

    Overview Evidence Table

  • Appendix D

    Full Data-Abstraction Evidence Table

  • Appendix E

    Health Research Funding Organization Evidence Tables

This research was sponsored by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (now the Psychological Health Center of Excellence) and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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