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Developing innovative, inclusive, and diverse public partnerships - Frequently Asked Questions


Published: 26 July 2022

Version: 1.0 - July 2022

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This document provides answers to questions frequently asked about the Developing Innovative, Inclusive, and Diverse Public Partnerships highlight notice within Programme Development Grants.

Background and scope

How much do we need to know about what we want to do before we apply? What if the work is to try to figure out what would be best to do? Would an exploratory (and possibly vague) application be okay?

We recognise that this funding stream is different to the regular Programme Development Grant (PDG) scheme.  The key word for that scheme is ‘Development’. The PDG scheme funds health and social care research that seeks to come up with applied solutions to problems and which can lead to bigger research projects, that is: a Programme Grant for Applied Research (PGfAR).

We are prepared to consider Programme Development Grant applications that are more exploratory.  They may not necessarily lead to more future research; or they may lead to future research, but not something as large and complex as a Programme Grant for Applied Research. It would be especially good if they did, but we will be flexible, and we understand that the link to the Programme Grant for Applied Research funding scheme is something that may develop over time.

For example:

  • You may not yet know quite what questions you want to ask, so part of the Programme Development Grant application might be about forming a strong partnership between a community group and a research team  to work out what the important questions are.
  • Instead of leading to a large Programme Grant for Applied Research, the output from this grant may lead to another, smaller, Programme Development Grant aimed at further developing partnership activities.
  • Your work might develop ideas to improve the Programme Grants for Applied Research scheme and applied health research more generally – for example, your work might develop new and better ways of engaging with the public and communities, or new and better ways of doing qualitative research or engaging with disabled people or people from underserved communities.
  • Your work might be inspirational enough to make the case for another innovative work and funding stream within Programme Grant for Applied Research (just as previous work inspired this funding stream).

It is important to remember, though, that the NIHR funds research, meaning applications need to be logical, specific, have clear outputs, and some connection to the Programme Development Grants and/or Programme Grants for Applied Research schemes, which is: health and social care research that seeks to come up with applied solutions to problems.

How are you defining ‘communities’?

This Programme Development Grants funding opportunity aims to be as inclusive as possible. Therefore, we do not wish to pre-define what we mean by communities. It is very much up to those applying to explain to us how they define their community.  For example, it might be people with a certain condition, or people living in a certain area, or people with a certain group of interests. In your application, please explain your community, how you aim to reach that community, and why this is important.

This is a very new NIHR initiative and hence much of its value is  about re-educating NIHR, researchers and academic communities.

Do you have groups in mind that you view as currently underserved?

Again, we do not wish to pre-define what groups we consider to be underserved. Groups identified as ‘underserved’ by, for example, a branch of government, may not see themselves that way. The NIHR has published its INCLUDE framework.  It may help you to look at this. As we said above, we are very open to hearing why you feel the group you are working with has been overlooked by research and how developing relationships with that group would meet clear needs and would help build strong research projects now and in the future.

Local Health Authorities and NIHR Health Determinants Research Collaborations also do work in this area.  How will this grant fit in with those?

We can see why the question was asked, and sometimes it is difficult from outside an organisation to see the differences between different but similar NIHR funding streams.

This funding opportunity aims to develop and evaluate novel partnership-based activities to help communities with what the communities themselves feel needs help.  The core idea is that the work is generated by communities for communities, with researchers helping and advising communities on how to do the work they want to, rather than communities advising researchers on what they feel best (the more typical form of Public and Patient Involvement [PPI]).

By comparison, Health Determinants Research Collaborations focus on infrastructure based in local government. They try to help  local authorities become more research-active and then to use this research-based evidence to aid decision making.

Importantly, though, as described above, while this work does not necessarily need to lead to a Programme Grant for Applied Research, there must be some link to the Programme Grants for Applied Research funding scheme.

Would a James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership be within the scope of this award?

A James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership would not fall into the scope of this funding opportunity. James Lind Alliance seeks to bring patients, carers and clinicians together in Priority Setting Partnerships, to identify and prioritise unanswered questions or evidence uncertainties that they agree are the most important.

This funding opportunity is about doing active work now to address problems and find solutions to concerns that communities raise.  In effect, it might be the next step on from a James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership. Applications must describe a community engagement research project with outputs that ultimately:

  1. supports the development of a sustained community-research partnership with applied benefit
  2. supports a future Programme Development Grant application
  3. supports a future Programme Grant for Applied Research application; or
  4. benefits the Programme Grants for Applied Research funding scheme more generally.

Could the Programme Development Grant lead to a Programme Grant for Applied Research that did work on practical community engagement once the Programme Development Grant has generated information about how to do that?

Yes. However, if this is your proposed outcome, you must be able to demonstrate how such a research programme will improve health and care outcomes for patients, carers, service users and the public. We recommend that applicants familiarise themselves with the scope of the Programme Grants for Applied Research Programme (PGfAR). 

Briefly, the Programme Grants for Applied Research funding scheme funds applied health and social care research that leads to substantially improved outcomes for patients, service users, carers and the public. Research programmes are usually made up of a number of high-quality linked projects which are called ‘work packages’.  These work packages are separate smaller projects which all link together in one large, coherent overall project.  The idea is that all work packages are part of one theme and by doing them together, more value is gained than would be by doing them separately. In effect: by doing them together 1+1=3, rather than 2.

If you plan to say your work under this Programme Development Grant will lead to a bigger Programme Grants for Applied Research then you will need to make a clear case of how it will do so.

Sometimes existing projects have already developed partnerships which include community, local, NHS and university members. Would a project that looks to expand an existing project or group be eligible for funding?

No, an application solely for follow-on funding to maintain and expand an existing relationship would not be eligible. It would only be eligible if a new research approach that is truly community (as opposed to researcher) generated wishes to explore a new aspect of working together for direct benefit of the community themselves.  This sort of application – one which builds on an existing relationship – will have a higher criteria to meet to show how it is truly community generated.

Is social care research eligible for this funding opportunity or is the funding for health topics only?

Yes, social care research is eligible for this funding opportunity.  

Can I apply if I already hold a Programme Grant for Applied Research award?

Yes, the funding opportunity is also open to researchers who hold a programme grant (that is, Stream B of the Programme Development Grant funding scheme).

What about educational research?  Some research of this type is not directly tied to patient outcomes but does impact patient outcomes via impacting professional training?

Educational research – that is: research on how to teach professionals to do their job better – could be considered within remit for funding, but an exceptionally strong case would need to be made that by improving professional training, the quality of care a specific community receives will improve and will lead directly to better health and care outcomes.

Communities are sometimes very small and localised (for example, one group of people in one specific area) and other times widespread (for example, people with a single condition nationally). Which is more important to focus on, and is one preferred over the other?

Again, this is where the NIHR is looking to communities to teach us.  We need to learn from you about what is more important, so please make your case as clearly and strongly as possible. While ultimately we wish to support research that has an impact across England, we will not look unfavourably on applications that focus on a local area. We recognise that a small change can make a big difference. But you have to make the case/justify why that is the right thing to be doing. You also need to pay particular attention to the sections of the application form that allow you to make a case as to how the positive outcomes for your group may help other groups or other locations.

‘Success criteria’ is a phrase which means ‘how will we judge how well the project has worked?’ Does the application already need to have clear ‘success criteria’ or can part of the work be to figure those out, and if so who should decide these: the community members of the researchers? 

This is a very good question and a difficult one to answer. It would be very helpful if in your application you could give us your thoughts about what ‘success’ looks like. This will be different for different groups and, like the work itself, we are keeping a very open mind. It would also be helpful if you would be clear and honest about what barriers there might be to success.  

For example, if you were working with a community of substance abusers hoping to develop methods for getting that community to propose and trial ways of members accessing health care more consistently, and testing whether phone calls or texts reminding people of appointments was better, and what sort of language was most effective, a measure of success might be an increased number of contacts. A barrier might be digital exclusion – that is, both texts and phone calls might work and one might work better but it will be difficult to tell because many in that community don’t have consistent access to a mobile phone. It would also be helpful if these ‘success criteria’ and barriers related to future work.  

As for how we are defining success for the Programme Development Grant overall, the primary measure will be whether the current research funded establishes strong partnerships that in time lead to more relevant and impactful future research. 

For more on this, please see the published information about this call and our proposed selection criteria. We will be selecting applications based on:

  1. the strength of the partnership and whether the team has the right skills mix to lead the research
  2. the plans for the partnership to be sustained 
  3. the plans to ensure mutual benefit between researchers and communities
  4. the reach of the team and research proposed within under-served communities
  5. the novelty and overall quality of the proposal
  6. the proposal’s likelihood to influence future PGfAR health and social care research
  7.  the amount and distribution of funding between the researchers and community partner organisation

In stating your measures of success, you could consider these success criteria.

What do you mean by ‘innovative’? Can innovation also mean new and different ways of working internally within organisations?

Public Contributor Anica Alvarez Nishio and Steven Blackburn from the NIHR Research Design Service wrote a NIHR blog about how the insight and input of patients, service users and the public has become a standard part of research. This is a big change from how research was previously done, and a welcome one. However much of this work now follows a set pattern. For this funding opportunity (and for future Programme Grants for Applied Research awards) we will be looking for new ways of generating true partnerships between the public and researchers.

We are looking for partnerships shaped from the ‘outside->in’.  We are looking to shift from the current practice of researchers generating ideas and then asking the public to comment on them in ways that work efficiently and easily for researchers to creating sustained partnerships where the public and researchers meet on equal footing. These should reflect the diversity of people they serve and should be designed to address critical health inequalities – as defined by the groups themselves. This may require new ways of working which may well feel uncomfortable or inefficient to the researchers because they will be fitting into the communities’ ways of working rather than the other way round. This shift away from current practice will inevitably require a degree of change on the part of research organisations, and it would be helpful to state clearly what some aspects of this might be.

However, it is important to remember that the primary tangible benefits are realised with and for the community – any innovation or benefit for a research organisation should not be the primary intention of the proposed work.

Support with your application

What is the Research Design Service and how can it help? 

The Research Design Service (RDS) provides free and confidential advice on research design, writing funding applications and public involvement, to health and social care researchers across England. The RDS is available to advise anyone who is putting together a grant application, including people working with charities. It operates from 10 regional centres across England.

Developing an application is expensive both in terms of time and money. Where will funding to support community groups in developing the applications come from?  Will volunteers be expected to be involved and pay for their own expenses to develop the  application? 

We are aware of the challenges. Part of the purpose of this new funding opportunity is to gather evidence about this to make a case for changing processes to better support community involvement in research.

Public/community contributors should be reimbursed for their expenses and time.  This is NIHR policy. Partners can apply for a Public Involvement Fund grant from the Research Design Service to cover some of these costs.  Also, researchers can sometimes additionally identify resources from within their institutions to help with this.

Any costs for public or community contributors that are incurred in the application process (that are not supported by the Research Design Service or elsewhere) can be included in the application budget and, if the application is successful, will be reimbursed.

Do all Research Design Service regions offer this funding and how much can we ask for?

Yes, all 10 Research Design Services provide a Public Involvement Fund. Typically, you can ask for up to £350 per project to support public involvement in the development of a funding application. The Research Design Service may consider providing additional funding to support  more innovative, creative, and/or community-focused engagement approaches. We are happy to discuss this with you.  Please contact your nearest Research Design Service.

How do community groups go about finding and working with an NHS sponsor, what would be the first steps and how would a community group learn what research process would be most appropriate for what they want to do?

Under current NIHR rules, it is a requirement that an NHS organisation hosts an application. This is because the funding for the scheme comes from the Department of Health and Social Care. There are several steps you can take to identify and work with an NHS organisation. 

Firstly, we can help you through our Research Design Services. The Research Design Service has close links with NHS organisations who are active in research. The Research Design Service also works closely with local NIHR Clinical Research Networks who support NHS organisations to navigate the required research processes and deliver research studies. Research Design Service specialist advisors will be able to help you with plans for the application and use their connections to help link you with relevant NHS health and care researchers.

Secondly, reach out to your local NHS organisation(s). Research-active NHS Trusts should have a Research and Development (R&D) department. If an NHS organisation becomes a partner and sponsor in the project, then they should be able to help with the organisation, management, finance and administration of the proposed research study. Find contact details of local NHS Research and Development.  

Please also note: there will be more than one round of this funding opportunity, so if you take a while to develop your study you will have an opportunity to apply in a later round. 

Issues of importance to a community may be broader or less detailed/specific than a particular research question. What is your advice?

Once a community group has an idea of what concern it would like to address, it is worth starting discussions to see where there is a good match.  This is where the researcher will be able to help the community groups – that is: helping community groups narrow things down to a specific idea or question.  It can be worth identifying a number of potential partners at the outset and exploring whether there might be a shared focus.

Can Research Design Service help with ethical considerations?

Yes. If your project will include specific research activities with human participants, then the Research Design Service can help you think about the study design and what ethics approval will be needed. The normal process of developing partnerships and public groups and researchers working together does not normally require ethical approval. However, there may be issues to consider if you engage with potentially vulnerable groups or individuals, or in potentially vulnerable settings.. The Research Design Service can help you with this. Contact the Programme Development Grants team who will put you in touch with the appropriate Research Design Service contact.

Do you expect the community groups to do the bulk of the work?  Are the researchers just advisers? 

The approach will be different for each project.  It depends upon the respective strengths, needs and wishes of  the partners. In your application please show how the partners will work together to develop ideas and share both power and learning. 

What is the role of universities?

University researchers are trained in planning and conducting research projects. They are often specialists in particular areas of health and social care services.  University researchers can help make clear what you hope to investigate and what results you hope to achieve.  They are experienced in doing this which is why we require them to be part of the research team - to help deliver the research. Find links to university websites here. You could do searches for health and/or social care research departments. Alternatively, contact the Programme Development Grants team who will put you in touch with the appropriate Research Design Service to help you make contact with an appropriate university team.

Application process

Will there be an Easy Read version of the written/application materials?

Not for this round of applications. As an NIHR research programme, we are obliged to use a standardised research application form and guidance for applicants. These are available on our Programme Development Grants webpage.  They have been formatted to be accessible by audio tools for people with impairments, but at this stage, Easy Read versions of these materials have not been produced. This is a helpful suggestion that we will consider for the future.

Being a ‘community led’ project, when it comes to the Lead Applicant, should this person be a researcher (and if so, do they need to be a senior researcher or could they be an early career researcher) or should it be someone from a community group, or both? 

The Lead Applicant for a usual Programme Grant Application would be either i) an established researcher experienced in leading other researchers or ii) to help career development and build research capacity, an  early career researcher with senior research team members present for mentorship. 

This funding opportunity aims to put the community at the forefront, which is a new way of working. We are therefore looking to see applications led equally by the community partner and the researchers.

As the Programme Development Grants funding scheme will only contract with a NHS organisation or provider of NHS services (see below), to achieve this, one approach might be to have joint Lead Applicants. That is, an academic lead researcher and a joint community lead representative, giving their lived experience working with community teams and other relevant and important stakeholders.  

Please note: we expect the community partner to have a full role in  the development and delivery of the application.  Hence the joint lead role and responsibility of the community partner should be fully and clearly described in the application, in particular how the arrangement benefits the application.

You said that the PGfAR funding scheme requires contracting to be done with an NHS Trust or other NHS service provider. Why? What is an honorary contract and how can that help?

That is correct and is one feature of how the NIHR is set up. When the Programme Grants for Applied Research scheme (and later the Programme Developments Grants scheme) was set up (after the review looking at the way health research funding was allocated), it was decided that money distributed from this funding scheme should be for the benefit of the English NHS. This is why (and for some other NIHR funding schemes, for example, the Research for Patient Benefit funding scheme) the contract needs to be held by an English NHS Trust or other provider of NHS services, and also, as highlighted below, for governance reasons.

For this call, though, we need to work within the established systems.  Community groups should develop their ideas for research and then find a research group to work with.  These research groups  will have established relationships with eligible host NHS organisations.  

What about the devolved nations? Is funding available only for NHS England organisations or also in other parts of the UK (Scotland, Wales & NI) also eligible? 

The Programme Grants for Applied Research and Programme Development Grants research programmes budget is funded by the Department of Health and Social Care which funds health and social care in England. Therefore we can only contract with England based organisations.  There is some latitude for the devolved nations to be involved as collaborators alongside an NHS England host organisation. Please contact the Programme Development Grants team if you would like more specific information. 

How flexible is the definition of ‘Public Health hosts’? Would a County’s Voluntary Services team who are rolling out social prescribing or Local Authorities be acceptable?

Again, at this point in time we need to work within established systems and processes. 

The Programme Development Grants funding scheme is only able to enter into research contracts where the main host organisation is either an NHS body or another provider of NHS services, providing they are capable of fulfilling the role of research sponsor as set out in the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research. If an organisation holds contracts directly with the NHS to deliver social prescribing services and can provide supporting evidence that the organisation has the competence to fulfil the research sponsor role, then the organisation may be eligible to host the research directly. Please contact the Programme Development Grants team for more information.

Who will be reviewing the applications and making the decisions, and what expertise will they have?

The Programme Development Grants committees typically consist of the Programme Director, a number of ‘expert’ health services researchers and two to three public contributors.  These public contributors are embedded in their communities and bring a wealth of lived experience to discussions. They always bring important insights – sometimes very critical ones – to decisions about which projects should get funded.  They also serve a useful function in helping work in the opposite direction – that is: helping to explain to their communities the work of the NIHR and the importance of research.  

In recognition of the importance of the community voice in this funding opportunity, the balance of public to expert members will be reversed, with the public members making up the majority.

However, the important thing to remember is that they will not necessarily be a specialist in your particular area. You will need to make clear specifically how your research is going to benefit the community you serve, patients, the public and the wider NIHR. 

Researchers themselves may also have relevant lived experience (for example a disability or membership of a particular community group). Will reviewers of the applications look favourably on the inclusion researchers with this sort of lived experience?

Research team members with lived experiences can bring authentic and welcome  insights that increase the likelihood of fostering positive relationships with members of the public. However, given that these researchers are familiar with the health and care research system, their contribution should not substitute for ideas generated by and leadership from organisations and individuals outside the established research system.  First and foremost, applications should be community, not researcher, generated and led.

Who does the grant money go to and how is it distributed? Although the grant proposals are community-led, would it be acceptable for the University partner to take the lead on financial management as the community partner may not have the resources to do that?

In the first instance the funding will be distributed to the NHS host organisations. This is why it is important for an experienced, accredited host organisation to be in place.  (Please see elsewhere for an explanation about host organisations.)  Payments will be made by the Department of Health and Social Care to the host organisation on a quarterly basis.  

In developing the application, community groups, any university partners, research teams and the host organisation should work collaboratively to come up with the most appropriate, practical and streamlined ways of funding the research.  This should not incur undue administrative or financial burden on the community groups (for example, certain things may need to be funded up front which traditionally might have been billed retrospectively or shorter, paper-based expense forms may be necessary).   In your application you should show that sensitive, inclusive discussion has been had about financial matters and that fair and equitable ways of working have been developed to foster sustainable short- and longer-term partnerships.

It may be difficult to give a fair amount of money to both community groups and to research partners, given the difference in pay rates. Do you have any advice? 

We are aware of some of the challenges here. 

For this funding round we will be looking for a fair, appropriate and justifiable distribution of funding between the community organisations and their research partners. We have chosen not to make a recommendation as to what an appropriate split might be as this is the first time we are running this funding call. Also, each application will be different. This funding scheme is able to fund up to the 100% of the direct salary costs to cover the proportion of the community organisations’ and researchers’ staff time dedicated to delivering the planned work. Community organisations may also apply for proportional overhead costs and a proportional amount to offset volunteer time.  These will need to be fully justified in your application.  Indirect HEI indirect costs are not eligible within this funding scheme.

What is ethics approval and do we need to get it for our application? Does ethics approval need to be via NHS ethics if recruitment is only via community settings and not clinical?

Ethics approval is a process where research applications are checked  by the Health Research Authority (HRA) to ensure members of the public participating in research are treated fairly.  The HRA has stated that you do not need to submit an application to a Research Ethics Committee to be able to involve the public in the planning or design stage of research, even if the people involved are NHS patients.

As mentioned above, the Research Design Service can also help you with this. Contact the Programme Development Grants team who will put you in touch with the appropriate Research Design Service contact.

Digital poverty is a real barrier which excludes many communities from participating in research. How is the NIHR going to avoid this?

We recognise this can be a challenge. There is no one correct way of working. Each application and community group will be addressing its own research questions, and the ways of working chosen should be appropriate to those.  We encourage teams to consider all ways of working to enable all the people who need to work together to be able to work together equitably, collectively and productively, taking full consideration of circumstances and wishes. We would also encourage the NHS organisation taking the lead/joint lead on the application to support community partners to fully participate in the research that is most convenient and productive for them (e.g., hybrid working, arranging meetings closer to community partners, offering technical support, childcare, transportation, etc.), ensuring that all costs to cover meetings are included in the budget. This is why it is important for the community partners to take a lead in designing the work and how to deliver it – so that issues of concern to them can be raised, addressed and budgeted for at the outset.

How will feedback be given on unsuccessful applications?

We recognise that a great deal of work – often unpaid and unreimbursed – will have gone into developing the applications.  We really appreciate all groups who choose to submit applications, whether or not they are successful, and are looking to ways of addressing these systemic barriers in future.  

Applications which are unsuccessful will be sent detailed written committee feedback with their application outcome notification letter.  The precise level of detail this includes will depend to some extent on the number of applications received.  If a large number of applications are received, there may be a two-stage review process.  If so, at the first stage an initial review will be done to choose a shortlist of the strongest applications to take to the committee for further review.  Those applications rejected at the initial stage will receive less detailed feedback. Those that make it to the second stage but are still unsuccessful will receive more detailed feedback.  There may be some applications which are unsuccessful in this round but which are given encouragement to reapply in further rounds and specific feedback on how to improve their applications should they choose to reapply.

When can successful projects start? Is there a deadline by which they must start?

Successful applicants will be able to start as soon as the research contracts have been agreed and signed. This process typically takes 2-4 months after the funding decision has been announced.  We anticipate it should be possible for awards to start by 1 July 2024.  We would expect the majority of the awards to have started their work by 1 September 2024.  If there is a reason these dates would not work for your project, please get in touch with us and / or state the reasons for this in your application.

If you are successful will you get any support during the work?  How do you make sure the work is being done appropriately and on time? 

We monitor the work of the researchers to whom we give grants. Your award will be assigned to a programme manager who will be on hand to answer general queries and provide guidance.  This is  another reason it is important to have a host organisation.  (Please see elsewhere regarding host organisations.). 

We are also doing continual assessment of this funding opportunity – this gathering of learning points has already begun and a full evaluation will be done. This evaluation will shape how NIHR can best enable and support community and research partnerships in future.

Future funding opportunities

If we won’t be ready to submit an application in 2023, how soon can we begin working on one for future funding opportunities in 2024?

Potential applicants are free to start thinking about and developing their application at any time up to 2024. In practical terms, this means applicants are free to contact Research Design Services or the Programme Development Grants team to get advice now.