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Evolving NIHR's Programme Development Grants

Professor Elaine Hay, Director of NIHR’s Programme Grants for Applied Research, explores how Programme Development Grants are evolving to support further work based on previously funded programmes of research.

NIHR’s Programme Development Grants (PDGs) are part of the comprehensive support we offer health and social care researchers. These grants were designed to enable research teams to carry out targeted work to prepare for a competitive application for a larger portion of funding from NIHR’s Programme Grants for Applied Research (PGfAR) scheme. 

Since taking over as Director, I’ve thought carefully about the future of Programme Development Grants and consulted with the research community and my colleagues on our funding committees. As a result we’ve brought in some changes which are described in our guidance

  • PDG still need to have clear links to a PGfAR, but we have relaxed the need for the PGfAR to be described in detail on the PDG application form 
  • We are trialling a new slant for PDG, in which applicants can apply for a PDG to ‘further develop’ an existing PGfAR
  • We have increased the amount (£150k) and timespan (two years) of the awards 
  • Finally, the peer review process for PDGs has been overhauled to be quicker and more efficient

Our hope is that this updated approach will simplify the process for applicants, and open up opportunities for researchers to build on existing programmes of research. Follow-on PDGs could help to catalyse knowledge mobilisation or implementation activities, or to carry out further data analyses, all with the ultimate goal of bringing clear benefits to patients. 

We have reviewed the first round of applications since these changes were introduced, and I was delighted to see an increase in the number of applications. Of the seven submitted, three were PDG aiming to lead to a future PGfAR and four were ‘follow-on’ programmes. Here are two examples of recently awarded PDG that follow-on from PGfAR: 

Gary Ford - promoting effective and rapid stroke care

"Thrombectomy is a major advance in stroke treatment that improves outcomes for acute stroke patients. In our PGfAR ‘Promoting Effective and Rapid Stroke care’ we determined the clinical effectiveness, cost effectiveness, baseline provision and limitations of existing thrombectomy services in England. 

"We modelled optimal configurations of thrombectomy centres across England for delivering this important therapeutic advance. In the PDG we will develop and disseminate a modelling tool to help plan future service configuration to optimise outcomes for patients and we will develop a Community of Practice (CoP) to facilitate its implementation. We will include the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in developing the tool/CoP."

Simon Harding - individualised screening for diabetic retinopathy

"We started the individualised screening for diabetic retinopathy programme in 2013 - developing and testing an innovative new approach to screening for diabetic retinopathy, the commonest cause of blindness in working age people in developed countries. But before we could start, we had to develop new data integration systems from scratch, explore acceptable study designs with patients and health professionals, deal with layers of governance, and prototype a risk estimation engine. Without solving these challenges in our PDG we wouldn’t have been able to complete the largest RCT ever done in ophthalmology or screening with 4,438 participants, show robust cost effectiveness data, or show pivotal qualitative evidence on the behavioural and perceptual barriers to acceptable change.

"So where next? With funding just awarded from a new PDG, we can now design the systems to address the key caveats for patients and professionals that our qualitative programme identified around failsafe, such an essential component of screening, and strengthen our validation evidence to support national and global uptake." 

Advice for applicants

Having reflected on the applications, I have a few tips for potential applicants. 

For those PDGs intended to lead to a future PGfAR:

  • Make it absolutely clear how and why your PDG is needed to support your future PGfAR
  • Describe your proposed future programme clearly and succinctly in a paragraph
  • Make sure your PDG and future PGfAR is within the remit of the scheme -  the proposed research should be sufficiently applied and the potential benefits to patients, public, NHS, social care users and systems must be clear

For ‘follow-on’ PDGs:

  • Clearly articulate the potential benefits to patients, public, NHS, social care users and systems
  • This PDG scheme should NOT be used to simply analyse data that was collected and intended to be analysed during the course of the programme
  • Make sure you have the appropriate team - if your PDG includes knowledge mobilisation / preparation for implementation, you should include individuals with these skill sets

I am looking forward to seeing how the changes we have implemented bear fruit in the form of increased diversity of programmes and ultimately increased impact and benefits to patients, the public and society. As always, if you have any questions, comments, or constructive criticism then please get in touch.

Find out more about PGfAR and PDG and apply online.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.