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Chair’s report for round 3 (2023) of the Predoctoral Local Authority Fellowship (PLAF)


Published: 14 December 2023

Version: 1.0

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The PLAF scheme supports individuals based within local authorities and associated settings to

  • develop a proposal for funded PhD study
  • undertake a personalised programme of research training
  • access focussed supervision and mentorship
  • attend relevant conferences and networking events
  • meet some ongoing work commitments within fellowship time

all on their existing contract and salary.

By the end of a PLAF, the fellow is expected to have become a competitive applicant for fully funded PhD study.

Competition Summary

The third annual PLAF call launched on 26th January 2023 and closed to new applications on the 23rd March 2023.

The PLAF Selection Committee convened on the 13th June 2023 to discuss the applications and make recommendations for fellowships.

Round (year)Applied (for full support)Awarded (full support)Applied (for bridging support)Awarded (bridging support)
Round 1 - Pilot - (2021) 18 15 10 5
Round 2 - (2022) 20 12 2 1
Round 3 - (2023) 17 9 2 3

Two applicants for full support were deemed to only require bridging support and were granted fellowships on this basis

Observations by the Chair of the PLAF Scheme’s Funding Committee

In this third round of the PLAF scheme, the selection committee was pleased to see a developing maturity across the scheme, including a wider range of proposed study, a greater diversity of host institutions and a broader representation of local authority-associated professions. We continue to believe that the PLAF scheme represents excellent value in terms of the opportunities afforded to local authority staff to develop their research skills with line of sight to a research career as a practitioner academic.

The quality of applications was strong, with the most exceptional having a clear sense of purpose, a developing sense of a planned research career, and a strong (and strongly articulated) link between planned activities, host institution, professional context and both past and planned trajectory. The selection committee was pleased to see that several candidates undertook resubmissions. All applicants are reminded to access the full range of resources available to them, both from NIHR and from their host institutions, in preparation of their applications.

Finally, a point of emphasis arising from this round was the relative underutilisation of the PLAF Bridge offer. This is a time-efficient on-ramp to doctoral study that a range of applicants with good prior training could have used more effectively. The selection committee used its discretion to reroute several applicants to this award, and would be eager in future rounds for greater uptake from those applicants who, having had prior research training, wish to return to a blended practitioner-academic career.

As in prior rounds, the strongest applicants in this round:

  • Demonstrated commitment to a career that combines continued practice and professional development with research and research leadership
  • Presented plans for research during the PLAF or in subsequent doctoral research that seemed realistic and sufficiently narrow to be achievable, and that have clear relevance and potential benefit to their local authority-related context and the wider sector
  • Were specific in detailing the appropriateness of the award to their experience and trajectory through a careful evaluation of their training needs (e.g. using Vitae) and used this to inform their training plan
  • Presented a training plan that was clearly set out, and in excellent alignment with the research they would like to subsequently pursue. In many cases this comprised a well-considered ‘pick-and-mix’ of courses from various universities, though in some cases the training needs could be met by courses at a single institution. In general, strong applicants included some methods training of specific relevance to their research plans
  • Included well thought-out involvement of service-users, patients or relevant citizens or stakeholders in their training plan, and, in some cases, had already consulted with service-users or other relevant individuals or groups in the development of the PLAF application
  • Made a convincing case that they will be able to submit a competitive doctoral fellowship application following completion of the award
  • Had the support of supervisors with subject knowledge and a track record of graduate supervision, who had given time for discussion and helped develop the application
  • Described with specific detail how the proposed supervisor will support them to undertake the training and development programme, including how many contact hours they will receive
  • Provided good justification for their choice of mentor, and indicated how many contact hours they will receive
  • Highlighted specific aspects of their proposed research environment that will support their development and research
  • Had made contact with collaborators (e.g. directly relevant academics, third sector organisations, etc.) and offered enough description of the collaboration that reviewers could understand how the relationship would benefit the applicant’s development and fellowship plans
  • Included a strong, well-tailored statement of support from the partnering host organisations, confirming protected time for the fellowship, and indicating present and future commitment to supporting the applicant as a researcher-practitioner within the organisations.

Some especially common pitfalls, even in some otherwise strong applications, included:

  • The University and/or Local Authority or other host organisation had not tailored their supporting statement, which sounded generic or unrelated to the specific needs of the applicant. This was especially disappointing to the selection committee.
  • The applicant neglected to describe what had resulted from any previous research they had conducted (e.g. whether they reported to stakeholders, or whether they had learnt skills relevant to the present fellowship).
  • The applicant did not offer sufficient clarity regarding their exact research interests, and how work on the topic would benefit local authority-relevant practice.
  • The training plan was not exactly aligned with identified training needs and future research plans.
  • The application contained inadequate plans for service-user, patient, citizen or stakeholder engagement, or inadequate costing or unrealistic timeframes for this.
  • The applicant neglected to discuss how the award of a fellowship will serve to support their aspirations and plans for professional development alongside their funded academic development, and/or how it will further their career as a practitioner-researcher.

On behalf of the selection committee, I look forward to future rounds of excellent applications from developing practitioner-academics who will surely be poised to make a difference in their local authorities.

Prof G.J. Melendez-Torres
University of Exeter

Useful resources

Community Engagement and Involvement

The NIHR expects appropriate and relevant involvement of people who draw on care and support, carers, the public and other key stakeholders in the development and conduct of the projects it supports. Whilst practitioners may have day-in-day-out interactions with clients, carers and the public, and so have a sense of their needs and preferences, this cannot substitute for involvement; the NIHR expects more direct consultation and work with these groups by prospective researchers in relation to a project they would like to undertake.

Information and resources to assist prospective applicants can be found on the NIHR website (a detailed definition of public involvement in research, and briefing notes for researchers on how to involve the public).

In addition, the NIHR has contributed to a Toolkit for Increasing Participation of Black Asian & Minority Ethnic Groups in Health & Social Care Research, and has produced a further resource on Public Involvement in Social Care Research.

Although no longer updated, the INVOLVE website also serves as a repository of useful information and resources. INVOLVE was funded by the NIHR to support active public involvement and engagement in NHS, public health and social care research.

Applicants may also wish to consider seeking input from elected members at their associated local authorities, these individuals being representatives for their communities.

NIHR Research Support Service

The NIHR Research Support Service (RSS) supports prospective applicants to make high quality applications for research funding from the NIHR and from other national research funders. Assistance is primarily focused around refinement of research questions, research design and methodological support, so complementing the advice applicants receive from supervisors and/or mentors.

The RSS is delivered collaboratively through eight hubs, each a partnership of research groups and organisations.

All hubs support a broad range of research designs, from pre-application through to post-award delivery, as well as providing specialist topic or methods expertise. There are also specialist centres with expertise in public health and social care research.

RSS support includes:

  • pre and post award advice from methodologists, including statisticians, qualitative researchers, health economists, social scientists, behavioural scientists, clinical trialists and others with expertise in research designs, approaches and methods of analysis
  • advice on study development and delivery
  • advice on patient and public involvement, and on developing and delivering inclusive research
  • opportunities to collaborate with centres of research excellence

NIHR Applied Research Collaborations

NIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs) support applied health and care research that responds to, and meets, the needs of local populations and local health and care systems. These 15 local partnerships between NHS providers, universities, charities, local authorities, Academic Health Science Networks and other organisations also undertake implementation research to increase the rate at which research findings are implemented into practice.

Applicants should consider contacting their local ARC ahead of making an application, to see if there could be support available.

The ARCs undertake research on a number of areas of need highlighted by the NIHR Futures of Health report, including: the challenges of an ageing society; multimorbidity; and the increasing demands placed on our health and care system.

The £135 million five-year funding also aims to deliver national-level impact through significant collaboration between the ARCs, with individual ARCs providing national leadership within their fields of expertise.

The 15 ARCs are:

NIHR Schools

The NIHR Schools exist to develop evidence bases that will inform and improve practice within particular fields.

The NIHR School for Social Care Research, the NIHR School for Public Health Research and the NIHR School for Primary Care Research welcome contact from individuals seeking support and to connect with others who share their interests.

Existing data resources

Applicants are encouraged to consider whether existing data resources may be able to provide suitable data for their future studies, contributing to the feasibility and scope of a study. The UK Data Service provides a unified point of access to an extensive range of high quality social and economic data, including UK census data, government funded surveys, longitudinal studies, international macrodata, and qualitative data.

Peer Support

Titled ‘Developing Local Authority Researchers’, a new workspace on the FutureNHS platform supports developing researchers based within local authorities and allied settings to network, share knowledge and receive notifications of future development opportunities. The workspace is open to all, and includes an active forum, monthly virtual catch-up meetings, a members directory, and links to other resources and opportunities.