The University of New Mexico Center for Participatory Research (CPR) has received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to address key gaps in how community-engaged research projects are evaluated.

The five-year grant is the next step as the conceptual framework for community-academic engagement, and partnering continues to grow and develop, according to principal investigator Nina Wallerstein, DrPH, center director and a professor in the UNM Health Sciences Center Department of Family and Community Medicine and Public Health Program.  

“The field needs methods and tools to measure and strengthen partnerships that promote community ownership and sustainability,” she said. “These partnerships are critical in order to improve health equity in the long-run, especially true when research grant funding ends.”

The past decade has seen a rise nationally in community-engaged research (CEnR) and community-based participatory research (CBPR) projects. The NIH believes such partnerships, where community members are central to the design and implementation of research, can provide solutions to reducing health disparities and increasing diversity in the research workforce. Yet, despite the growth, there is little or no uniformity on measures or methods for partnership evaluation and self-reflection.

“We need to identify standardized quantitative and qualitative tools for evaluation of these research projects, yet still support partnerships to choose additional local indicators of success based on their own culture and context,” Wallerstein said.  

With the grant, “Advancing CBPR Practice Through a Collective Reflection and Measurement Toolkit,” researchers will work to develop a “tool kit” capable of effectively evaluating community engaged projects. They will begin by surveying some 350 federally funded research partnerships, including pilot projects within the UNM Clinical & Translational Science Center and similar research centers across the country. Group training opportunities – through face-to-face meetings of multiple partnerships at a time, or through web-based resources– will then be provided. The end result should be an effective assembly of tools that will be useful for community research partnerships to identify their own strengths and challenges; to assess their practices against national benchmarks of promising practices, such as shared resources, power, or decision-making, that are associated with health and research outcomes; and to develop strategies to enhance their own collaborative practice in order to reach their desired health outcomes.

“Our Center for Participatory Research has been grounded in the experience of partnering with tribal communities over several decades,” said Wallerstein, adding that collaboration with sovereign nations sets the gold standard for all communities who deserve equal status in setting research agendas and assuring benefit for their community members.

In addition to looking at the development of community capacities, the study will examine university capacities for engaging with communities. “We will also be assessing university practices and policies and asking, how do universities need to change in order be better partners?” Wallerstein said. 

For this research study, UNM will be partnering with the University of Washington, University of Waikato, New Zealand, RAND, the Community-Campus Partnerships for Health and the National Indian Child Welfare Association, as well as collaborations with a Think Tank of national-recognized academic and community experts in community engagement and CBPR.

The UNM Center for Participatory Research mission is to support a collaborative environment within UNM that is aligned with core values of community partnership, equity and participatory engagement in order to co-create new knowledge and translate existing knowledge to improve quality of life among New Mexico’s diverse populations.