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Call for Expressions of Interest: Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) 2024 (Specification Document)


Published: 09 April 2024

Version: 1.0

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Key information

We are seeking to commission up to 6 new Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST).

Teams will conduct evaluative research of local government initiatives, to build the evidence base for local government decision making as it relates to health and health inequalities. Each team will be appointed on 5-year contracts, with an estimated contract start date of 1 August 2025.

Applicants are invited to submit short expressions of interest by 2 July 2024.

Please read this call specification in full before submitting expressions of interest.


There is an ambition to build capacity and capability in prevention and public health research, making the UK a world leader in this area, in line with the NIHR strategy ‘Best Research for Best Health: The Next Chapter’. Key to this is a need to co-produce research with the public, policymakers, and practitioners to ensure research answers the most important questions facing policymakers and services at local and national levels.

In response to this need, the NIHR Public Health Research (PHR) Programme wishes to continue to facilitate and fund responsive evaluative research with a focus on local government. Such research is intended to build the evidence base for local government decision making and inform the delivery of current and future interventions that impact health and health inequalities experienced by the public.

In 2020 the PHR Programme launched the PHIRST scheme, which is currently funding 8 academic research teams. The PHIRST teams are able to rapidly evaluate interventions submitted by local government organisations from across the UK, where such interventions may impact on health or health inequalities.

The PHIRST scheme operates a model whereby local government teams can put forward their local interventions for evaluation. At set intervals (currently twice per year), the PHR Programme prioritises several of these interventions based on public health need and other factors. Selected interventions are then allocated among the PHIRST teams, who lead on scoping and taking forward their evaluation, working in partnership with the local government team.

Effective co-production with local government is fundamental to the success of the scheme and will result in the upskilling of local government teams (and utilisation of existing research skills and knowledge within those teams). PHIRST complements other initiatives such as the Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs) launched by NIHR and the Department of Health and Social Care, which are enabling local government to become more research active.

The purpose of this call for expressions of interest is to identify and commission PHIRST teams to continue the work of the PHIRST scheme.

The teams will be commissioned by the PHR Programme on a 5 year contract. The commissioned teams will have a demonstrable track record of a broad range of public health research, including access to the full range of scientific disciplines and methods needed to evaluate the breadth of local government activities. The successful teams will have significant experience of working responsively with a variety of policy and practice partners (including partners who have traditionally worked with public health professionals, and those who have not) – such as transport, planning, and environmental health departments.

Key criteria

Teams submitting expressions of interest may be from more than 1 institution. Teams should demonstrate the following in their expression of interest:

  • a track record in producing public health research that results in high-quality published outputs relevant to practice and policy
  • a track record of translating knowledge for public health practice and policy, and of working with policy and practice partners to maximise use of evidence
  • an ability to work in partnership with UK local government to co-produce research and upskill others; this includes linking with disciplines who have traditionally worked with public health professionals and those who have not
  • expertise in a broad range of both quantitative and qualitative research methods suitable for assessing outcomes of public health interventions at population and individual level  methods include (but are not limited to):
    • mixed-methods approaches
    • natural experiments
    • randomised trials
    • observational approaches
    • process evaluations
    • economic assessments
  • an ability to deliver high quality research responsively and within relatively short timescales
  • an ability and willingness to (re)prioritise work and flexibly adapt, in the face of competing demands, unforeseen issues that may arise given the nature of the research, and the potential for multiple evaluations to be running in parallel
  • access to a network of academic public health topic expertise, methods experts, and other academic collaborators with specialist skills and knowledge in a wide range of disciplines – teams should also have an ability to rapidly develop links with specific subject or methods expertise where these do not already exist within the team
  • an understanding of the breadth and complexity of local and national government as it relates to public health policy, practice and structures in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland
  • a track record in making scientific knowledge available to commissioners and policymakers in local government, using a diverse range of media and through face-to-face encounters
  • evidence of effective communication and negotiation skills
  • evidence of facilitating meaningful public involvement and engagement in research
  • an ability and willingness to work across the UK, including via remote/virtual working, and not just within the team’s immediate geographic location (noting that local government interventions from anywhere in the UK may be allocated to a PHIRST team for evaluation)
  • familiarity with relevant policies and goals of the NIHR and the Department of Health and Social Care


The PHIRST scheme funds teams that work alongside local government teams to co-produce and conduct evaluative public health research of existing or planned interventions. The aim is to inform future commissioning and policy decisions, by building the evidence base for local government interventions as it relates to health and health inequalities. Research undertaken is typically localised and topic focused, but evaluations are expected to produce system learning and widely applicable recommendations. Applicants will therefore need to consider how they will derive generalisable findings from each evaluation.

It is hoped that advancements in theory and methods will be a by-product of this funding. To contribute to success of the PHIRST scheme, applicants will need to be adept at knowledge exchange and have the ability to work closely with policy and practice partners – this will enable application of research findings to deliver change.

Publication of research outputs will be agreed on a project-by-project basis. However, there is an expectation of the following, as a minimum, from each defined evaluation project:

  1. an accessible evidence briefing for policy and practice decision makers, co-produced with, and tailored to the needs of, local government partners
  2. a full and accessible academic output (typically a research article(s) published in an open-access peer-reviewed journal(s), or a short report for the NIHR Open Research platform) in line with the NIHR Open Access policy

We also encourage, for each evaluation, production of a broader range of outputs agreed and co-produced with local government teams; these might include presentations, infographics, podcasts, videos, or other digital formats. The needs of local government teams are key, and a dissemination/communication plan will ensure effective knowledge exchange.

In commissioning a team with a critical mass of evaluators, we would expect there to be efficiencies in activity. With regard to the contract and expected deliverables:

  • the value of the contract is up to £2.5m over 5 years
  • NIHR would expect 10 evaluations to be completed during the course of the 5 year contract
  • the duration and scope of each evaluation is agreed on a case-by-case basis (and teams will develop a protocol for each evaluation), but to date the duration of evaluations has typically been 12 to 18 months
  • allocation of projects would be front-loaded, i.e. projects would be allocated during the first 2 to 3 years of the contract, to allow completion and publication of all outputs by end of year 5 – teams will need to be aware of this and reflect it in their financial profiling of resource

There has been, and will continue to be, considerable shared learning generated through the PHIRST scheme, and therefore a flexibility of approach and a willingness to work closely with the PHR Programme and existing PHIRST teams will be needed. An example is contributing to the development and upkeep of the PHIRST website – which acts as an online presence for the scheme and a repository of research outputs – alongside the other PHIRST teams. There will be a need to review progress during the contract and adapt working methods as necessary to ensure the success of the scheme.

Subject to continued availability of funding, and stakeholder demand, PHIRST teams may be contracted (in open competition) on a rolling basis, with opportunities for existing teams to reapply.

Assessment process and timetable

Expressions of interest will be shortlisted by the PHR Programme. Shortlisted teams will be asked to submit a Stage 2 application form and to attend an interview. Either 3 or 4 representatives from each of the shortlisted teams will be invited to the interview. The interview panel will be made up of a subset of the PHR Prioritisation Committee and PHR Funding Committee, with expert representation from the fields of public health practice, public and patient involvement, and academia.

Expressions of interest should be limited to three sides of A4, in size 11 font and should indicate:

  • a description of the team and its disciplinary skills; its host institution(s); and its overall capacity and capability to recruit, supervise, and direct resources as needed
  • how the team meets the criteria set out in this specification document
  • a statement of the general approach to be adopted, how the team will plan its work, and proposed ways of working to achieve the goals of the PHIRST scheme
  • arrangements for management, governance, and scientific oversight of the contract and individual projects
  • a brief business plan with a maximum budget of £2.5m over 5 years. Assurance that a Stage 2 application, if shortlisted, would have the support of the host institution(s). Please also include any other letters of support, as necessary

Additional to the 3 page expression of interest, brief CVs (each no more than one side of A4, in size 11 font) of the lead applicant and up to two others likely to be named as co-applicants or to play a key role in the team, should also be provided. CVs should clearly indicate the person’s track record in public health research (for example training, qualifications, grants, and publications). The roles of these individuals and their level of input must also be stated.

Expressions of interest together with the brief CVs should be emailed to by 1pm on 2 July 2024.

We anticipate that shortlisted applicants would develop a Stage 2 proposal throughout August with a late September submission deadline. Interviews will take place towards the end of November with successful applicants signing contracts from 1 August 2025. Successful teams should expect to be in regular contact with a designated NIHR Programme Manager at the NIHR Co-ordinating Centre (Southampton), and will be required to complete 6-monthly contract reviews and yearly financial reconciliations.

Notes to applicants

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

Transparency agenda

In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety such that it can be viewed by members of the general public. Further information on the transparency agenda can be found via the Local government transparency code 2015 and the Contracts Finder.