Martin White

Celebrating 10 years of funding some of the best public health research in the world


Martin White, Director of the NIHR Public Health Research Programme 

Date: 30 October 2018


It seems like only yesterday that I was invited to join the Research Funding Board of the new NIHR Public Health Research Programme (PHR). It was mid-2008 and it felt as if, at last, public health research was in the ascendency. We had recently seen the advent of a range of new funding initiatives including the National Prevention Research Initiative, The Department of Health Public Health Research Consortium, the MRC’s Population Health Sciences Research Network, and the UK Clinical Research Collaboration Public Health Research Centres of Excellence. But each of these had a specific purpose, whether for capacity building, policy research or the prevention of non-communicable diseases. There remained a huge gap to fill with a funding programme that could continuously boost evidence for public health policy and practice.

The NIHR Public Health Research (PHR) Programme was launched to achieve this with a budget of £10m/year, complementing existing funding streams from the NIHR and others. It was created to fund research to generate evidence for interventions outside the NHS that impact on population health.

In its first five years, the programme was expertly led by its inaugural Director, Professor Catherine Law. Catherine successfully steered the design, launch and development of the programme, recruited board members and chaired both funding and advisory boards. This was a tough act to follow. In fact, so much so that two of us were appointed to succeed Catherine in 2014 (myself as Programme Director and Frank Kee as Funding Board Chair)!

By 2014, the Programme was in full swing and had funded 83 projects with a total value of £54m. We now have over 160 projects in the portfolio, with a value in excess of £106m. 54 of these have already published in the NIHR Journals Library.

As the programme has grown we have had increasing difficulty containing spending within our budget and have an ever increasing need to prioritise proposals following scientific scrutiny. Although challenging for the programme and for our researchers, this does mean that the programme remains highly competitive, funding what I believe to be some of the best public health research in the world.


The future is evolving

Of course, a research programme cannot stand still, and over the past four years we have been continuously exploring ways to make PHR more efficient and effective. The drive for efficiency is an NIHR-wide endeavour, and I hope that we are making our processes easier for researchers. We recognise it is hard work preparing and submitting a grant application! What we aim for is proportionate effort. To help ensure that research can be undertaken quicker for urgent public health challenges, we have introduced the option of a Fast-track application and a new Rapid Funding Scheme (RFS), launched in April 2018. Both schemes are ideal for evaluations of new policy interventions. The RFS is specifically targeted at projects which require speed to ensure a prospective evaluation is established and baseline data collected. We hope that these schemes will accelerate the delivery of timely and impactful public health evidence.

But our drive for impact is not just about timeliness, we are also working to ensure the research we fund is increasingly relevant to evolving priorities of public health policy and practice. Our dedicated Prioritisation Committee members keep us connected with the practice world, and in this video explain how public health priorities are changing.

In May 2018, we also supported the development of phinder – a web portal to connect public health research and practice. phinder is a brokering service, listing public health challenges in need of research or evaluation and enabling potential research partners to connect. Please do help us to publicise the scheme – and please do submit new challenges or respond to those listed!

We are constantly looking for ideas to shape and improve the Programme, both new topics for research and ways to better meet the needs of the wider public health community. If you have ideas that you think might help, we’d love to hear from you.

The Programme can justifiably celebrate a remarkable first 10 years of innovation in public health research. We have funded some outstanding trials such as Football Fans in Training [FFIT], added substantially to the evidence base on interventions delivered in schools, evaluated the impacts of a range of infrastructure developments, conducted studies in marginalised groups that few others are researching, and helped to drive high-quality research on the use of digital media to promote health.

Importantly, we have funded evaluations of some of the most important public health policy interventions of our time, a selection of which are listed below. I’d like to thank everyone at the NIHR and Department of Health and Social Care, our dedicated Committee members, Chairs and Deputy Chairs, our countless hard-working reviewers, and all of the incredible research teams who have made this possible.  I look forward to a productive and successful second decade!

PHR funded studies of novel policy interventions from the last 10 years:

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.
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    Martin White, Director of the NIHR Public Health Research Programme reflects on the first 10 years of the programme and looks to the future.
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    Martin White, Director of the NIHR Public Health Research Programme 

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