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Global Health Research Centres - Theory of Change




NIHR has developed this Theory of Change (ToC) to illustrate to potential applicants to the NIHR Global Health Research Centres call a selection of example activities, outputs, and outcomes reflecting the Centres’ core aims, objectives, and funding criteria. We would emphasise that it is intended merely as a visual representation of the Centres core principles and ambitions, drawing on scoping work and discussions that have informed the Centres initial commissioning. Thus we would encourage applicants to think creatively and broadly in how they interpret and further build on the ToC, in terms of how concepts apply in their own local contexts.

NIHR intends and expects this ToC to be updated and evolve as part of activities linked to successful Centres’ own strategies to deliver wider impacts, and monitoring, learning and evaluation plans - and welcomes prospective applicants’ feedback on how the principles and ambitions set out in this guidance relate to their own ambitions, contexts and experiences. Please email with any feedback.



A number of activities and information sources have informed the development of the Centres ToC. To date, these include:

  • an initial scoping review (literature review + interviews) conducted as part of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)’s commissioning of the Centres scheme;
  • a series of workshops involving DHSC and NIHR staff to discuss aspects of the Centres’ underpinning programme logic, and how to begin to map these visually as an aid to design and delivery of the Centres scheme;
  • conversations with evaluation leads at other UK-based funders of schemes with a focus on LMIC research capacity strengthening.

Usage and definitions

The Centres ToC is intended as a high-level, illustrative guide to be read alongside the relevant Centres call-specific guidance documents, to support prospective applicants’ thinking and discussions in advance of preparing an application. NIHR recognises that research capacity strengthening initiatives are themselves complex interventions, and we encourage applicants to refer to various sources noted in the guidance documents for more in-depth explorations of principles and frameworks relevant to these kinds of activities.

Prospective applicants may find the following definitions helpful for interpreting the ToC:

By ‘inputs’ we refer to preparatory activities, existing research expertise, research capacity and/or funding, leading up to NIHR’s provision of a Centres award. As part of this we have highlighted specific ‘application planning’ activities that will include targeted workshops hosted by NIHR for applicants who are successfully shortlisted to enter Stage 2 of the competition.

We note example ‘activities’ - both in different domains, and cross-cutting - to consider early in the establishment of any successful Centre, and where relevant link these to illustrative ‘outputs’ - including but not limited to generation of high-quality research outputs - that would be expected to be delivered as a direct result of such activities, in the relative short-term (i.e. less than 5 years from the date of an award). We encourage prospective applicants to consider these and other activities relevant to their local contexts as part of their upfront planning, and what appropriate indicators of output might reasonably be expected (for further exploration of measures of research translation - including evaluation of quality and context - see Lebel & McLean, 2018) .

The intended objective of the Centres programme to deliver both high-quality research and research capacity strengthening are reinforced by reference to ‘intermediate outcomes’ across three levels - individual, institutional and societal - that we would expect to be directly influenced by Centres’ activities and outputs, in the medium term (i.e. 5-10 years from the date of an award). For the current Centres call, we would expect these outcomes to reflect the specific focus of activities addressing NCDs, aligned to local LMIC priorities and needs. Nonetheless, we recognise that any intermediate outcomes are likely to result from the complex contribution of a number of different factors, actors and initiatives.

At the highest level, ‘long-term outcomes’ align with the wider ambitions of NIHR’s Global Health Research portfolio-level ToC (referring to SDGs where relevant), that we expect to be indirectly influenced by Centre’s activities and outputs, in the longer term (i.e. 10~25 years from the date of an award).  While aspirational, in due course (i.e. over an extended period of time) we would expect to understand how the Centres scheme as a whole has contributed to changes in these outcomes, even if not all outcomes are relevant or directly attributable to the work of a specific Centre.

Next steps

The Centres ToC is a visual representation of a number of aspects NIHR considers key to the success of any funded Centre. It is not a template and NIHR strongly encourages local adaptation and feedback on aspects relevant to prospective applicants’ experience, expertise, and local contexts.

In parallel with its launch, NIHR will be exploring ways to develop a proportionate, learning-oriented and inclusive approach to monitoring and evaluation of the Centres scheme (see Khisa et al. 2019). NIHR hopes to further develop and build on this initial ToC as part of these activities, in partnership with both prospective and successful Centre applicants, and in the spirit of mutual learning (e.g. as part of a continuing dialogue and engagement activities across all stakeholders involved in the Centres). NIHR thus welcomes all comments and suggestions, as we develop these approaches.

References and further reading

Khisa AM, Gitau E, Pulford J, Bates I. A Framework and Indicators to Improve Research Capacity Strengthening Evaluation Practice. 2019. UK Department for International Development. 10.13140/RG.2.2.27767.37287

Lebel J, McLean R. A better measure of research from the global south. Nature. 2018; 559(7712):23. 10.1038/d41586-018-05581-4

UK Department of Health and Social Care. NIHR Global Health Research Centres programme: scoping review and proposal development. 2020. [unpublished]