Call for proposals: NIHR Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs)
Closing date for stage 2: 1pm 26 July 2023
The NIHR wishes to fund a set of innovative research collaborations between local government and the academic sector that focus on improving the wider determinants, or drivers, of health. HDRCs are intended to be a UK-wide initiative led primarily by local government. In this document, the term ‘local authority’ is used to include all equivalent structures across the UK.
UK public health research is undergoing substantial evolution following the publication of the Academy of Medical Sciences report ‘Health of the Public 2040’ and establishment of the Strategic Coordination of Health of the Public Research (SCHOPR) Committee. SCHOPR has recommended future priorities for public health research to the four CMOs in the UK. More recently, the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) was announced, which will lead national efforts to improve and level up the health of the nation by tackling wider preventable risk factors and working across government departmental boundaries.
There is a push to build on existing strengths to make the UK a world leader in public health and prevention research. This will centre on co-producing research with the public, policymakers and practitioners to ensure it helps answer the most important research questions facing policymakers and services at local and national levels.
The health of the public is fundamentally influenced by the wider determinants, or drivers, of health. The work of local government profoundly impacts on these drivers, but there is, to some degree, a paucity of useful evidence around what can impact on these drivers and how to influence them. It is vital that local government is better supported to become more research-active and further build this evidence base. Research activity demands infrastructure within and owned by local government, mirroring the culture of research that has taken many years to develop in the NHS. Since 2013, local authorities within England have had primary responsibility for public health. In the devolved administrations, local government works closely with the national public health agencies.
Work to understand the research and evidence challenges facing local authorities started before the COVID19 pandemic, with external reports from sources such as NETSA, SOLACE and LACoR. In 2018/19, Professor Chris Whitty visited local authorities within England, to hear, first-hand, about the public health challenges local authorities face and how research can help address them. A round table event with local authority leaders was hosted by Professor Whitty and Dame Professor Anne Johnson at the Kings Fund in 2019. To access the report from the round table please email a request to email@example.com
In recognition of the challenges faced by local authorities, the NIHR has begun to widen its initiatives aimed at strengthening the research culture within local government, aiming to build and strengthen capacity and capability both within councils and academic institutions. Annex A details the activities taken forward in relation to this agenda. The 14 NIHR Local Authority Research Systems projects commissioned in the summer of 2020 are of particular note. These projects were tasked with rapidly reviewing how research systems and structures within local authorities across the UK could be developed and enhanced should they be provided with the tools to do so. This learning helped lead to the development of the Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs) concept. A summary of the Local Authority Research Systems reports can be gained upon request by emailing us.
Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs)
In 2022 NIHR commissioned an initial round of HDRCs. Off the back of this success, the NIHR wishes to continue to develop and extend its commitment to enabling local government to become more research-active on a systematic and sustainable scale by commissioning a second round of HDRCs. It is envisaged that a similar number of HDRCs to that in the 2022 round will be commissioned.
HDRCs are a new element of NIHR-funded research based in local government. Their purpose will be to help enable local authorities to become more research-active, using evidence to inform their decision making by undertaking research and evaluation relating to their activities, including synthesising and mobilising existing evidence. In this, it will build on the wealth of knowledge that authorities already have regarding their local areas and enable what is being done to be more readily researched and evaluated. HDRCs will focus on what can be done to address the wider drivers of population health and health inequalities, explicitly addressing the needs of disadvantaged groups and areas within the relevant geography. Central to this will be a strong focus on health inequalities and actions to tackle the particular issues faced by disadvantaged groups and areas.
As per the original HDRC plan, the second round of commissioning will focus on achieving a greater geographical coverage. With an intention to invest in areas that can demonstrate need and the added value that the HDRC can bring to an area by developing and expanding capacity and collaborations.
HDRCs are a UK-wide initiative open to England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. The term ‘local authority’ has been used consistently as ‘shorthand’ in this document, but the HDRC initiative is open to local government organisations and equivalent structures throughout the UK who plan and commission services to improve public health both directly and indirectly.
An introductory HDRC webinar will be held on 1 February 2023. To register for the webinar please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name, job title, organisation and any questions you would like addressed.
What is an HDRC?
NIHR HDRCs are nationally recognised centres of ‘research excellence,' based in and led by local government, which receive core funding from the NIHR. Their focus is on building research capacity and capability between local government and the academic sector. Fundamental to each collaboration is a multi-disciplinary Research and Development (R&D) team. Each HDRC supports public health capacity building by enabling local authorities to become more research-active and thus more involved in shaping and driving forward the research agenda in a way that is most informative for the decisions and issues they face. The intention is that the HDRC model helps drive the research culture within local government, building not only on the skills and expertise of academics but also the experience of those working in local government. People who work in local government are highly qualified, with the added advantage of knowing how to operate in a political environment and to manage complexity. HDRCs represent a tremendous opportunity for sharing skills and experience between sectors.
The ‘C’ in HDRCs is of particular importance. Successful HDRCs demonstrate partnerships between local government and higher education institutions. They demonstrate collaboration at both a strategic and operational level. What does that mean in practice? Strategically, it means that incentives are aligned: the programmes of work and activities of the HDRC are of equal value to the local authority and to researchers involved in the collaboration. Operationally, shared posts and projects address the needs of the local authority and the requirement for academics to demonstrate the impact of their research. The overall aim of the HDRCs is to increase research capacity and collaboration at a local level to aid evidence driven decision making. HDRCs strengthen a research culture across the organisation, demonstrating co-creation and dissemination of research driven by the policy and decision-making needs of local government.
Our vision is to increase the HDRC investment in the longer term by bringing more HDRCs online systematically over the course of the next 5 to 10 years. HDRCs commissioned in this round may have the opportunity to renew their contract after the initial 5-year award period. Each HDRC is a distinct entity with clear geographical boundaries and a defined population. Transparent governance mechanisms, with clear leadership and a named leading contractual organisation, are a requirement for each HDRC. The local authority based R&D teams will build and/or enhance relationships with the academic sector but should not be based in the Higher Education Institutions.
HDRCs can be based primarily in 1 local authority, or collaborations between more than 1 local authority, with 1 or more Higher Education Institutions. If a collaboration or consortium approach is taken, 1 local authority must take a clear leadership role, and the benefits of the collaborative approach must be well-articulated. HDRC investment is significant and has the potential for impact, so there is a balance to be achieved between a collaborative approach involving a range of partners whilst also ensuring that the investment is not spread too thinly.
What will a successful HDRC do?
Whilst recognising that the design of each HDRC will vary to suit different areas’ priorities and existing research networks, from NIHR’s engagement with and insights from local authorities we know that there are several important ingredients that HDRCs will need to address. The PHR commissioned Local Authority Research Systems projects, undertaken in 2020, was part of this engagement and significantly informed the development of the HDRC initiative. A summary of the Local Authority Research Systems reports can be gained upon request by emailing us. The analysis highlights some of the barriers experienced by local authorities in conducting or participating in research. The work proposed by HDRCs to increase research capacity and capability at a local level will need to demonstrate how these barriers will be addressed.
The following sub-headings detail some of the possible areas that a successful HDRC will influence and work within. Applicants should consider these categories when writing their expressions of interest:
- Creating a culture within the host local authority and its collaborators of making enhanced use of research evidence to inform decision making aimed at improving health and tackling health inequalities across all functions and departments.
- Identifying opportunities for research and evaluation of local authority initiatives.
- Assessing where more robust evidence could add value in aiding decision making.
- Acting as a champion for R&D with other local authorities, either in neighbouring areas or similar authorities in other parts of the country.
Resource and capacity
- Supporting local authority functions to source information by undertaking tasks such as reviews of literature and accessing / producing evidence-informed summaries.
- Applying for research funding or collaborating with academics who are applying.
- Enabling research to be undertaken by ensuring that any necessary research systems and processes are put in place.
- Training local authority staff in accessing and making best use of evidence-based resources.
- Signposting staff to training resources and career development opportunities.
- Developing strong collaborations with providers of tailored capacity-building activities intended for local government audiences, such as the NIHR Academy and the NIHR School for Public Health Research.
- Facilitating public engagement in the research agenda.
- Developing stronger relationships between the collaborating HEI and other academic groups.
- Working in partnership to attract research funding from a range of funders, including NIHR.
- Linking effectively with the appropriate national public health bodies across the UK.
- Working effectively with other HDRCs to share good practice and learning.
- Encouraging the development of relationships with academics from non-traditional public health disciplines where appropriate to areas of interest for the authority.
- Developing relationships with local NHS R&D functions to serve the shared population’s research needs.
- Having clear mechanisms in place to engage with local communities to identify research needs and to disseminate the work of HDRCs in ways that are relevant to those communities.
- Seeking out opportunities for the local authority to undertake research or make use of research findings, ensuring that these are central to the organisation’s leadership and decision-making processes.
- Leading discussion within local systems and/or across similar local authorities about the role of research in improving decision making.
- Communicating research findings in appropriate formats for the local government audience and for the communities served by the HDRC.
- Clear channels for disseminating the work of HDRCs both to local groups, including strong engagement with the underlying populations, and to local authorities that are faced with similar issues (for example, an HDRC might focus on a topic such as coastal health, in which case there should be clear plans for sharing relevant findings and knowledge with local authorities in similar areas).
- Working across statutory and non-statutory organisations in the defined geography and/or across groups of similar local authorities to share learning from research aimed at improving population health and reducing health inequalities / tackling disadvantage.
The value of each HDRC contract is likely to be up to £5 million over five years. Eligible costs include: core staff costs (e.g. Director’s time dedicated to the collaboration, an HDRC manager, R&D practitioner posts, IT support, administrators etc); training and development; materials and consumables for core HDRC facilities; communication and dissemination activity costs. This funding cannot be used to fund interventions or council services. The contractor must be based in an eligible local authority or equivalent in the UK. It is recognised that the term ‘local authority’ has been used consistently as ‘shorthand’ in this document, but the HDRC initiative is open to local government organisations and equivalent structures throughout the UK. For the purposes of the contract there must be one named local authority contractor.
A limited number of workshops to help guide potential applicants will be held in March 2023. Details of the exact dates and how to register your interest will be shared after the February webinar.
Assessment process and timetable
Expressions of interest will be shortlisted by a sub-committee. Shortlisted teams will be asked to submit a Stage 2 application form and to attend an interview. Around 4 to 5 representatives from each of the shortlisted teams will be invited to the interview. The interview panel will be made up of representatives from public health practice, members of the public and the academic sector.
Expressions of interest should provide the following details (consult the guidance notes for more detailed direction):
- Where possible a named and experienced Director able to lead and direct the HDRC vision and oversee governance and management structures. The Director should be a senior post equivalent to a Consultant in Public Health. Existing local authority staff time can be bought back. If the intention is to recruit a Director upon a successful application a senior local authority staff member should be named as interim Director for the purposes of the application.
- A brief description and/or diagram of the staffing structure for the HDRC. This should include a description of the governance and management team, its skills, its contracting body/bodies; its overall capacity and ability to recruit/supervise/direct resources as needed.
- A statement of the general approach to be adopted, detailing how work programmes will be planned, and proposed ways of working to achieve the goals of the initiative set out in this document.
- Arrangements for management, governance and oversight of the contract.
- A brief summary, detailing how the criteria set out in the specification document will be planned and achieved, and how resources will be allocated.
- Assurance that the Expression of Interest has the support of the contracting local authority. This should be at least a letter from the Director of Public Health and also an elected member (either leader of the council or the health portfolio holder or the chair of the Health and Wellbeing Board). Please also include any other letters of support, as necessary.
- Deadline for Expressions of interest (stage 1) is 1pm on 18 April 2023.
- Outcomes of stage 1 -May 2023
- Deadline for Stage 2 applications is 1pm on 26 July 2023
- Interviews will take place during September
- HDRC to start 1 December 2023.
Monitoring and governance
The successful HDRCs should expect to be in regular contact with a designated NIHR Manager, and will be required to complete 6 monthly progress reports, host a yearly ‘site’ visit and supply yearly financial reconciliations. An annual report to the PHR Programme Director will also be required. This report and the yearly site visit will be critical to the HDRC contracts continuing. Annual reports will act as learning and development tools to help guide any changes or improvements needed. Given this is a new initiative the ability to be flexible and adaptable and continuously learn will be required.
HDRCs will be expected to invite NIHR representatives as observers to their Steering Committee meetings. NIHR will conduct an evaluation of the HDRC initiative at an appropriate time point. Commissioned HDRCs will be expected to engage with this evaluation.
In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety to the general public. Further information on the transparency agenda is available in the Local government transparency code 2015 or the Gov.UK Contracts Finder.
Annex A: NIHR prevention research package – supporting local authorities to grow their research capabilities for the longer term
In recent years, the NIHR has been widening its support to public health (and social care) research, which typically needs to focus in non-NHS settings and in local government in particular where many of the levers to affect population health improvements lie. Discussions began to gather pace following the publication of the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) ‘Health of the Public in 2040’ report in September 2016 and the creation of SCHOPR – the Strategic Coordinating body for the Health Of the Public Research - sub-board of OSCHR, chaired by Dame Professor Anne Johnson with representatives from other research funders. Other important developments since 2016 include:
- The Prevention Green Paper, published in July 2019
- A series of visits to LAs with Chris Whitty and Anne Johnson during 2018 and 2019 and a LA Roundtable in October 2019
- SCHOPR paper setting out advice on public health research principles and goals to the UK Chief Medical Officers, published in October 2019
- Formation of the NIHR Public Health Operational Group (PHOG) and first meeting in October 2019
- NIHR Strategy Board agenda item in November 2019 that supported the direction of travel on how the NIHR is supporting public health prevention research for local government
These developments fed into DHSC’s discussions with HMT for the March 2020 Budget and Spending Review (SR) 2020. As part of the March 2020 Budget, the Government committed £12 million of new funding for the NIHR to invest in prevention research, supporting LAs to grow their research capabilities for the longer term. The new funding in SR 2020 continued to improve our understanding of how to reduce the burden of illness in the future. These investments have enabled DHSC and the NIHR to set in train some of the promising ideas gathered since 2016 and to begin a more concerted effort to support a shift in how local government accesses and uses research evidence.
The package of initiatives
Funding has supported a package of initiatives that centre around 5 themes and includes the following core activities:
Theme: What NIHR funds
Ensuring that public health research addresses questions that are most useful to local government.
Theme: How research is commissioned
Adapting systems and processes so research is timely for local decision makers and that it is easy for research applicants, including from local government, to apply for NIHR funding.
Initiative: Public Health Research Application Design Advice
Theme: How research is used
Developing outputs and ways of dissemination that are meaningful and useful to local practitioners and decision-makers
Initiative: Synthesis evidence on topics of specific interest to Local Authorities – in development
Theme: Who does research
Finding ways to upskill LA staff who have research and analysis abilities as well as improve the career pathway to enable people to pursue a career in both academia and public health practice.
Initiative: NIHR Clinical Research network (CRN) research support posts - Employing local-authority-based CRN staff who can support the use of research to generate evidence for local decision-making, participation in research and leadership of research in local government.
CRN funded Directors of Public Health/Public Health Consultants “research sessions” - One half day per week for LA DPH/consultants to undertake research activity that can help generate evidence for local decision-making and encourage a culture of research within local government LA Academic Fellowship Scheme (LAAF)
Theme: Research support
Ensuring that NIHR support mechanisms are tailored to meet the needs of public health research which is typically carried out in non-NHS settings by non-clinicians and at a population level e.g. in schools and prisons and which requires involvement from a range of academic disciplines and practitioners/policy makers.
Developing capacity on use of local and national data (5 projects)
Developing new methods – systems science and economics (2 projects)
The package is being monitored and evaluated so that DHSC and the NIHR can adapt and evolve a model of research support that best meets the needs of local government.