This site is optimised for modern browsers. For the best experience, please use Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

Programme Grants for Applied Research - Achievements during a challenging year


Professor Elaine Hay, Director of NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research, reflects on the achievements of the funding programme over the past year and outlines ambitions for 2021.

As we start a new year, and let’s face it this probably isn’t the start we would have wanted, it feels timely to reflect on the achievements of Programme Grants for Applied Research (PGfAR) during these difficult times.

PGfAR funds collaborative, multidisciplinary programmes of applied research to solve health and social care challenges. In 2020 we have successfully shifted the culture and direction of the funding programme - maintaining the predominantly researcher led approach that is the hallmark of the scheme but successfully incorporating and delivering on clear strategic priorities. This shift has been achieved while maintaining quality delivery of three funding calls per year, and monitoring of a large and complex awards portfolio; all in the context of the unforeseen challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We set out last year with a number of strategic aims for the programme, such as increasing the number of applications, diversifying the range and types of applications submitted and funded, encouraging applications from social care and public health, and engaging with research charities.

We have successfully delivered an impressive list of achievements for PGfAR including:

  • PGfAR applications increased by 45% and Programme Development Grant (PDG) applications increased ten fold
  • The proportion of diverse proposals increased by a third (33% of all PGfAR Stage 1 applications)
  • Social care submissions increased, and we made two PGfAR and one PDG social care funding award
  • We ran funding calls with Versus Arthritis and Diabetes UK, leading to the award of three co-funded applications
  • We remodelled our peer review process, reducing the peer review administrative burden by 57% and saving 150 hours of staff time
  • We enhanced our communications, producing regular blog posts and impact case studies 

We also introduced a number of changes aimed at refreshing and streamlining our processes including:

  • Continuous improvement (CI) of commissioning and monitoring process
  • Streamlining of external peer review processes
  • Refreshing the PGfAR guidance and remit
  • Refreshing the PDG guidance and remit 
  • Reviewing the system used to score applications, to improve consistency and transparency
  • Changing in format of Stage 2 and Main Selection Committee meetings

Listening and communication has been central to everything we do. The changes we have made have been informed and supported by an extensive range of consultative activities from 2018 to date, including committee member surveys, patient and public involvement at selection committees, and roadshows in areas with poor application rates, with the NIHR Research Design Service.

Of course, there have been challenges along the way, and some areas where we have not made as much progress as we would have liked. No one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, and of course its devastating effects have had serious repercussions for our programme. COVID-19 has not only affected the face-to-face outreach activity we had planned in order to forge better links with NIHR infrastructure and the life sciences industry, but has also required greater staff time to support our complex and large portfolio of research through many issues. 


Overall, PGfAR is in a strong position to push forwards and explore new opportunities. We are committed to the vision of ‘one NIHR’ and are proactively engaging with other NIHR funding programmes (for example, Research for Social Care) and NIHR infrastructure (such as the research schools, Translational Research Collaborations and Applied Research Collaborations). By doing so we hope to achieve better join up to support NIHR priorities such as social care research, research following patient need, underserved communities and, addressing equality and diversity.

We continue to engage with the charitable sector to identify further opportunities for cross-funder collaborations. Engagement with industry continues to be a challenge for PGfAR, but we aim to capitalise on shared learning from other NIHR research programmes to inform our further work in this field. Working with NIHR communications and the Centre for Engagement and Dissemination, we will seek to enhance the profile, visibility and impact of the PGfAR scheme.

Hopefully my roundup will remind us to celebrate our successes as we plan for the future.

Find out about Programme Grants for Applied Research.

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.