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19/107 Health effects of onshore oil and gas exploitation


Please note: The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme would like to draw researchers’ attention to the commissioning brief below, which was first advertised in Autumn 2019 . This is a brief that we have previously advertised as a commissioned funding opportunity. We are still interested in receiving applications in this research area, as it remains a priority in our portfolio. However, please note that the commissioning brief, along with the underpinning literature searches, has not been updated since originally written.

Research question(s)

  • How does onshore oil and gas exploitation impact health and health inequalities?

The questions below identify the main areas of interest in this call. Applicants may answer one or more, or specify more detailed questions as appropriate. All applicants must make clear how their research proposal extends existing knowledge:

  • How do the emissions and exposures from onshore oil and gas exploitation affect the physical and mental health and wellbeing of workers and nearby populations over the short-, medium-, and long-term?
  • What are the important emissions and exposures and how are these patterned over space and time? 
  • How do the differences in emissions and exposures between conventional and novel methods of onshore oil and gas extraction impact on health and health inequalities?
  • What contextual features of societies and populations affect the health impacts of onshore oil and gas exploitation?
  • How are the potential health risks from onshore oil and gas exploitation prevented or mitigated presently, and what further interventions may be needed to ensure they are minimised?

Conventional onshore oil and gas exploitation techniques have long been used in the UK (Evans D, Gunn G,Bloodworth A,Cowley J, Spencer N,Rayner D. Mineral planningfactsheet: onshore oil and gas. British Geological Survey. 2011). Novel techniques are used to increase yields or where conventional techniques are not viable. These include hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which uses large volumes of high-pressure fluid to create cracks in shale and other deep rock formations to stimulate the flow of natural gas and oil for extraction. Coupled with advances in directional drilling,fracking brings significant commercial opportunities (Mair R,Bickle M, Goodman D,Koppelman B, Roberts J,Selley R, et al. Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing. The Royal Society and The Royal Academy of Engineering. 2012).  However, potential environmental, health, and social harms mean the balance of costs and benefits of novel extraction techniques onshore is unclear (Finkel ML, Hays J. Environmental and health impacts of ‘fracking’: why epidemiological studies are necessary. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2016. McCoy D, Saunders P. Fracking and health. BMJ. 2018), and public concerns remain about potential risks (Bomberg E. Shale we drill? Discourse dynamics in UK fracking debates. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning. 2017).

Considerable research into the health effects of onshore oil and gas exploitation has been completed in the US (Werner AK, Vink S, Watt K,Jagals P. Environmental health impacts of unconventional natural gas development: a review of the current strength of evidence. Sci Total Environ. 2015), but there are questions aboutgeneralisability given the different physical (McCoy D, Saunders P. Fracking and health. BMJ. 2018), and legislative environment in the UK (Public Health England. Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposures to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of the Shale Gas Extraction Process. 2014). This call is about assessing the potential health impacts of onshore oil and gas exploitation in the UK in order to inform local and national policy.

The hazards and exposure routes of most importance to population health from onshore oil and gas exploitation are likely to vary with local geography, geology, the engineering techniques used, and the life cycle stage of a well (exploration, well construction and fracking, hydrocarbon production, decommissioning, and abandonment). Hazards and exposures may include (Environment Agency. An Environmental Risk Assessment for shale gas exploratory operations in England (2013); Medact. Shale Gas Production in England: An Updated Public Health Assessment. 2016):

  • Contamination of water within watercourses and aquifers from leaks, spills or disposals of fluids such as fracking fluid, flowback water, and chemicals used on-site.
  • Contamination of air from site operations including drilling, extraction, storage and transport of products and waste.
  • Contamination of land from leaks and spills, as well as from used fracking fluid, cuttings, and other waste.
  • Earth tremors, which may cause physical damage to buildings and infrastructure, or cause social disruption related to fear, internal migration and devaluation of property.
  • Disturbances from noise, light, odour, site infrastructure, and traffic.
  • Social changes relating to the wider determinants of health (for example, community cohesion, loss of amenity, road traffic, urbanisation, employment, and economic effects on communities).

We are open to applications that propose one or more research methods, including evidence synthesis, analysis of routinely available data, and quantitative, qualitative or mixed method primary research. In addition, because many health outcomes of interest may not manifest for years or decades, we would also welcome proposals that include simulation modelling that relates emissions or exposures to health outcomes, using a variety of approaches (e.g. epidemiological or economic micro-simulations, agent based or system dynamics models). Proposed methods and designs should be fully justified by applicants.

The research could consider relevant health outcomes, impact on health inequalities, and opportunities to mitigate harms, including review of existing site practices (such as flaring to mitigate air pollution, and noise barriers). Different population groups are likely to be differentially affected and the distributional impacts should be fully explored. Groups who may be at increased risk of harm include children, pregnant women, the elderly, those in socially deprived and rural groups, and those with existing health problems.

It is expected that research teams will be multi-disciplinary, with funded collaborators who have expertise in relevant areas such as population health, economic and social sciences, engineering, geology, environmental sciences, and planning or transport, as well as involvement of relevant professional stakeholders and representatives from local communities. Researchers will wish to consider carefully the nature of any interactions with or engagement of commercial organisations in the research, ensuring appropriate governance arrangements, management of potential conflicts of interest and mitigation of reputational risks.

Longer-term follow up: if appropriate, researchers should consider obtaining consent from participants to allow future follow up through efficient means (such as routine data) as part of a separately funded study.

Studies should generate evidence to inform the development or implementation of single or multi-component interventions. Studies may include evidence syntheses, studies evaluating interventions, including trials, quasi- and natural experimental evaluations, and feasibility and pilot studies for these. We welcome applications for linked studies (e.g. pilot + main evaluation). Secondary analyses of existing epidemiological data and/or impact modelling studies may also be funded. We encourage the adoption of a systems perspective where appropriate to the study context. In all cases a strong justification for the chosen design and methods must be made.

The primary outcome measure of the research, if not necessarily the intervention itself, must be health-related. The positive or negative impacts of the intervention, including inequitable outcomes should be considered. Researchers are asked to indicate how long-term impacts will be assessed. All applications should identify underlying theory and include a logic model (or equivalent) to help explain underlying context, theory and mechanisms. Proposals should ensure adequate public involvement in the research.

The impacts of public health interventions are often complex and wide-reaching. Studies should acknowledge this by adopting a broad perspective, taking account of costs and benefits to all relevant sectors of society. An appropriate health economic analysis to inform cost effectiveness, affordability or return on investment should be included where appropriate. Sustainability - health, economic and environmental - are also of interest.

For all proposals, applicants should clearly state the public health utility of the outcomes and the mechanisms by which they will inform future public health policy and practice. Details about the potential pathway to impact and scalability of interventions, if shown to have an effect, should be provided, including an indication of which organisation(s) might fund the relevant intervention(s) if widely implemented.

Representatives of policy or practice communities relevant to the project should be directly engaged or involved with the development and delivery of PHR research because this produces research that is more closely grounded in, and reflective of, their concerns and makes the subsequent uptake and application of research findings more likely. By policy or practice, we mean any organisation that is involved in shaping policy or delivering public health services relevant to the research, whether at local or national levels. This might include local authorities, charities, voluntary organisations, professional bodies, commercial organisations, governmental and arms-length bodies.
We welcome proposals in which appropriate professionals (e.g. a director of public health or chief executive of a charity) are formally part of the project team as a co-applicant, and in which they play a defined role in the project. Their contribution may be to facilitate or enable research access to organisations, to be directly involved in research fieldwork, to contribute to interpretation of emerging findings, and to be involved in dissemination activity. The time of policy or practice representatives as co-applicants can be costed into the proposal, as part of the Research Costs. As with all members of a project team, an individual's equipoise should be considered before they are proposed as co-applicant of a research project. Their involvement and associated costs should be fully justified, in the same way as for academic applicants.

There are other ways in which policy or practice representative support for the proposed research can be demonstrated, such as co-opting on to a project advisory or steering group, or the inclusion of a letter or statement of support from a senior policy or practice partner from relevant organisations.

Remit of call

All proposals submitted under this call must fall within the remit of the NIHR Public Health Research (PHR) programme. Please go to the programme webpage for details. For the evaluation of time sensitive, policy driven, interventions applicants may wish to consider the fast-track work stream which is also described on the programme webpage.

The PHR Programme funds research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health. Our scope is multi-disciplinary and broad, covering a wide range of interventions that improve public health.

The primary aim of the programme is the evaluation of practical interventions. We will fund both primary research (mainly evaluative, but also some preparatory research) and secondary research (evidence synthesis); precise methods will need to be appropriate to the question being asked and the feasibility of the research.

Our research serves a variety of key stakeholders including: decision-makers in local government; primary care organisations and other local public services; third sector organisations; relevant national agencies (e.g. NICE) concerned with improving public health and reducing health inequalities; researchers; public health practitioners and the public.

Applicants should consider how their findings will impact upon decision making in public health practice, whether results are generalisable to other populations and affordable, setting out a clear pathway to impact. The NIHR PHR programme recognises that there is a need for an evidence base for disinvestment and that the removal of an intervention from a population can be worthy of evaluation.

The affordability of the intervention, and at least an indication of the stakeholder(s) willing to fund the intervention, should be referenced within the stage 1 application. At the stage 2 application point, statements of support confirming stakeholder commitments to funding will be required. Applicants should be aware that the NIHR PHR programme is unable to fund intervention costs.

The NIHR PHR programme is open to the joint funding of research projects with other organisations such as those in the third sector. If you would like to explore the potential for joint funding, please contact us at with details of your proposal and the other funder prior to submission.

All of our funded projects are eligible for publication in the NIHR Journals Library. This open access resource is freely available online, and provides a full and permanent record of NIHR-funded research.

Notes to applicants

The NIHR PHR Programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, Health and Care Research Wales, and HSC R&D, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland. Researchers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are eligible to apply for funding under this programme.

Applicants are recommended to seek advice from suitable methodological support services, at an early stage in the development of their research idea and application. The NIHR Research Design Service can advise on appropriate NIHR programme choice, and developing and designing high quality research grant applications.

The NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) supports health and social care research taking place in NHS and non-NHS settings. The CRN provides expert advice and support to plan, set up and deliver research efficiently.

Clinical Trials Units are regarded as an important component of many trial applications however, they are not essential for all types of studies to the PHR programme. The CTUs can advise and participate throughout the process from initial idea development through to project delivery and reporting. NIHR CTU Support Funding provides information on units receiving funding from the NIHR to collaborate on research applications to NIHR programmes and funded projects. In addition, the UKCRC CTU Network provides a searchable information resource on all registered units in the UK, and lists key interest areas and contact information.

Transparency agenda

In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety to the general public.
For information about contracts worth over £10,000 with the government and its agencies use: Contracts Finder.