I've worked in research since the early 90s. Other than a part time job, I have never worked in a hospital.
I started out doing pharmaceutical trials, now I work in NIH sponsored trials.
Some research groups are all about the money. Others are about the research with the secondary aim of helping patients who otherwise can't afford the meds (I've worked in both).
If you are interested in nursing research and writing your own grants, you will need a PhD. Or you will need a PhD who is willing to head up your project. Right now the NIH is really pushing grants written by nurses. So those of you with PhDs, please look at the NIH website. They will even work with you to get your grant written.
The pharmaceutical trials were fun; mostly I did long term studies, so I got to know my patients. In general, you get to go on a trip to someplace pretty nifty to learn how to do the study. When you get home, usually the MD needs you to do everything including tell him/her when to do the physical exam (except for the few who are micromanagers, and I'd suggest NOT working for them). The work is flexible (depending on the study; I've done some where I carried a pager and saw the pts in the ER and then stayed for 8 hours; on another study, the patient had to be seen at the same time of day, every day, 7 days a week). The few times I've had to work holidays, it was never the whole day.
If you work for a private research group, there is often the possibility of bonuses if you do well with recruitment and get things in on time. Many universities won't allow employees to accept a bonus, however; but then again, the benefits are wonderful through a university (if you are worried about retirement and like 5 weeks vacation a year, a university is the way to go).
When I got tired of for-profit studies, and needed more of a challenge, I started working with nonprofit studies; NIH grants and nonfunded studies. These are much more diverse in nature and I see everyone from infants to elderly and work with over 90 different protocols.
You tend to get much more respect as a research nurse because the MDs/PhDs are depending on you heavily, and there is a lot of personal interaction. There is a LOT of paper involved, but also a nice mix of patient contact.
And you don't need certification; I've been offered any job I've applied for. These jobs are also sometimes open to non-nurses, as well (that's how I got into nursing -- my research employer told me they could pay me double if I got my RN).