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Expanding research diversity for NIHR’s Programme Grants for Applied Research


It is now nearly 6 months since I took up the position of Director of the NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research (PGfAR) and as the new year begins I am keen to encourage a more diverse range of applications to this prestigious scheme.

PGfAR funds NHS and academic partners to work together, addressing complex healthcare problems. The programmes of research that we fund consist of an interrelated group of high quality projects focused on a coherent theme, requiring multidisciplinary approaches. We often fund programmes that comprise a feasibility study or pilot, a large randomised controlled trial and some qualitative research, although the format of programmes is very flexible.

I want to encourage applicants to think ‘outside the box’ when designing a programme of research and demonstrating how their programme will deliver benefits for patients (be this at an individual or population level).

Flexibility on a solid foundation

The beauty of PGfAR is its flexibility, but there are some important boundaries that we should maintain:

  • applications need to be programmatic in nature, usually with a number of work-streams that link together to address related and complementary aspects of a clinical conundrum
  • the programmes need to be relatively downstream, fitting the brief of applied health research
  • programmes should be able to demonstrate benefits for patients – this will remain a key criterion

Beyond these foundations, the methodologies and designs within the programmes can, and should be, novel and varied. If, for example, applicants want to take advantage of ‘natural experiments’ to answer important clinical questions linked to patient outcomes or healthcare delivery, designs that aren’t ultimately focused on trials may be considered. These may utilise routinely collected healthcare data, be observational, involve novel statistical approaches to address confounding, or take a ‘public health’ rather than an individual patient perspective.

Similarly, if a programme wants to investigate treatment outcomes in rare diseases, or in clinical subsets of more common conditions, collecting new data might not be always appropriate. In these circumstances IPD (individual participant data) meta-analyses may be a more efficient and effective approach.

These are simply examples; there are many other possibilities, particularly for programmes carried out in non-traditional settings such as the social care or voluntary sector. The key advice is that applicants must justify their methodological approach.

Some of the patient benefits might be ‘softer’ than we have perhaps thought about in the past; my challenge to you is to be imaginative and to clearly demonstrate how you will maximise the impact of your programme from start to finish.

The PGfAR scheme offers a unique opportunity to improve methodological approaches to applied health research – embedding studies which address methodological issues within the programmes is to be welcomed.

Taking a fresh approach to programmes of research

Whilst I hope over time this refreshed approach to programmes will become ingrained in the system, I feel that there needs to be a more proactive approach in the short term to get the ball rolling.

Hence, I want to give advanced warning that Round 31, which will go live in October 2019, will be dedicated to applications using non-traditional, novel approaches to applied health research. It’s likely that such programmes may be shorter, and less expensive than the traditional model. I don’t want to be prescriptive, however I anticipate that programmes of 2-3 years in duration with a funding envelope of £1-£1.5m might be a good ballpark to start with.

I expect that this message will generate a lot of questions. To give you the chance to find out more and talk to me and the programme managers in person, we have a round of PGfAR Roadshows scheduled for 2019 with the NIHR Research Design Service - you can book a place now through the RDS websites. The first round will happen in the following places: 

If you would like a 1:1 session to discuss your ideas for a proposal at any of these roadshows, please complete and return a pre-submission form to the programme grants secretariat. This will help gauge numbers and ensure that you can be assigned to the most appropriate adviser.

Finally, we are endeavouring to attract a broad range of applied health researchers onto the PGfAR panels, so please consider putting yourself forward if you feel you fit the brief.

I hope these developments will be well-received, and look forward to working with you to assure the future success of PGfAR. 


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.