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HSDR researcher-led call specification document


Published: 04 February 2021

Version: 1.3 October 2023

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NIHR Health and Social Care Delivery Research (HSDR) Programme researcher-led workstream (standard Stage 1 to Stage 2): specification


The NIHR Health and Social Care Delivery Research (HSDR) Programme funds research to produce evidence to impact on the quality, accessibility and organisation of health and social care services. This includes evaluations of how the NHS and social care might improve delivery of services. The audience for this research is the public, service users, clinicians, professionals and managers.

The HSDR Programme aims to produce rigorous and relevant evidence on the quality, access and organisation of health and social care services, including costs and outcomes. The programme will enhance the strategic focus on research that matters to the NHS, including research on implementation and a range of knowledge mobilisation initiatives.

The NIHR HSDR Programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from Health and Care Research Wales, the HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland, and case by case contributions from the CSO in Scotland.

The programme operates 2 funding streams; researcher-led and commissioned. Researchers in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are eligible to apply for all funding opportunities under this programme. For commissioned and researcher-led workstreams, researchers in Scotland should contact the Chief Scientist Office to access NHS costs or non-NHS intervention costs at Scottish sites.

The researcher-led workstream

The researcher-led workstream welcomes Stage 1 proposals on topics or research questions identified by researchers within the programme’s remit. The aim is to fund research that will lead to improvements in health and care services that will be of greatest benefit to the NHS and to patients, and/or to Social Care and clients. We are interested in a range of types of research including primary research and evidence synthesis.

We are particularly keen to see large scale studies of national importance. This means primary research projects which:

  • Address an issue of major strategic importance to the NHS or Social Care, with the cost in line with the significance of the problem to be investigated
  • Are likely to lead to changes in practice that will have a significant impact on a large number of patients or clients across the UK
  • Aim to fill a clear 'evidence gap', and are likely to generate new knowledge of direct relevance to the NHS or Social Care
  • Have the potential for findings to be applied to other conditions or situations outside the immediate area of research
  • Bring together a team with strong expertise and track record across the full range of relevant disciplines
  • Will be carried out across more than one research site.

If you are planning a project of this type, you may wish to refer to the MRC Complex Interventions Framework.

Areas of interest

The researcher-led workstream has a continued interest in applications for research in areas highlighted as a priority in previous NIHR themed calls, as well as previous HSDR highlight notices.

Previous NIHR Themed Calls and their closing dates are listed below:

  • Dementia: May 2011
  • Surgical and implantable devices: May 2012
  • Primary Care Interventions: May 2013
  • Very Rare Diseases: Feb 2013
  • Antimicrobial resistance: Jan 2014
  • Long Term Conditions in children: May 2014
  • Applied Research into Mesothelioma: Oct 2014
  • Multimorbidities in older people: Apr 2015
  • Prevention & Treatment of Obesity: Apr 2016
  • Mental Health: Sep 2018
  • Chronic Pain: Jan 2019
  • Frailty: Jan 2019
  • Complex Health and Care Needs in Older People: Apr 2019
  • Injuries, Accidents and Urgent and Emergency Care: Sep 2020
  • Cystic Fybrosis: Feb 2021

The HSDR Programme will fund both primary research and evidence syntheses, depending on the existing research and the most appropriate way of responding to important knowledge gaps. NHS organisations, universities, and other organisations are eligible to apply, though applicants must demonstrate that the research team includes the range of expertise necessary for the work proposed. We welcome applications from Social Care.

Brain tumours

This brain tumours highlight notice indicates the continuing interest of NIHR in receiving research proposals in this area, and it encourages collaborative applications that demonstrate how they build on recent initiatives and investment in the area made by the NIHR, the MRC and other research funders.

Please note that the researcher-led call is open to all relevant research areas, and does not just include these highlight notices. If you are responding to the highlight notices, please indicate this in the application form in ‘What is the problem being addressed?’

Assessment criteria and process

The HSDR Programme is needs-led, science-added and value for money.

  • We are needs-led because we assess what questions are important to the NHS and Social Care, and in what priority they should be answered.
  • We are science-added because we ask whether the proposal meets the scientific quality we insist on, and we support the delivery of quality research through our monitoring process.
  • We provide value for money because assessment of need and scientific support maximises the relevance and benefits achievable within the funds available.

Standard Stage 1 to Stage 2 application process 

Applicants must submit a Stage 1 proposal, which will initially be checked for remit and competitiveness, prior to consideration by the HSDR Funding Committee. Shortlisted proposals will be required to submit a Stage 2 proposal, which will be subject to external review prior to consideration by the HSDR Funding Committee.

As part of the Stage 2 proposal expert review process, applicants will be given the opportunity to respond to reviewer comments prior to consideration of their proposal by the HSDR Funding Committee. Because of the application assessment timeline, applicants should be aware that there will be a relatively short window to provide this response, usually one week (applicants will be advised in advance when this will be).

Selection criteria

In assessing proposals, the Funding Committee will use the following criteria:

  • Importance of the suggested research to the needs of the NHS and delivery of health and social care services;
  • Scientific quality of the proposal including the likelihood of the study;
  • Making a substantial advance in scientific understanding and knowledge;
  • Leading to a substantial improvement in health or health/care services;
  • Increasing understanding of the broader topic area;
  • Feasibility of the study;
  • Demonstration of the team’s skill mix, experience, project management and infrastructure for success;
  • Whether costs of the proposed research are realistic and value for money.

General guidance for applicants 

The programme aims to commission high quality, well designed research which will be carried out by effective and efficient research teams, providing findings which meet the needs of NHS and Social Care managers and leaders. NIHR experience suggests the importance of the following:

Theoretical framing and empirical methods

Issues should be addressed in a way likely to lead to the wide applicability of findings. Applicants should clearly demonstrate links between theoretical and empirical work. Large projects will need various methods, including both qualitative and quantitative approaches matched to study questions and with clear understanding as to how findings from different approaches will be integrated.

Research team makeup and expertise

Large projects are likely to need teams with significant input from a number of disciplines. All project proposals should include details of how the project will be managed, including who will be the project manager, a role which should be appropriately costed where necessary. This role may be played by the Chief Investigator or another designated team member. A Project Manager role description is included in the Stage 2 proposal guidance notes. For projects involving a number of institutions or component parts, effective project management is essential to ensure the work is completed within the planned timeframe.

Stakeholder and public involvement

Applicants should demonstrate involvement of all relevant stakeholders (including, where appropriate, local communities, ethnic groups, patients, clients, carers and the public, as well as health and social care practitioners and managers) during the design, execution and communication of the research. Projects should explicitly outline how the proposed work could lead to enhanced public and community engagement.


Given the aim of the HSDR Programme, successful projects are likely to involve partnership working between experienced academic teams and those involved in the delivery of health and social care services.

Research governance

Applicants should ensure their proposal complies with the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research. Successful applicants will be required to provide proof of research ethics committee approval for their project, if required.

Costs and value for money

We will fund a range of projects in both size and duration. Value for money will be an important consideration and project costs will be carefully scrutinised and must be well justified. NIHR programmes fund Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) at a maximum of 80% of Full Economic Cost (except for equipment over £50,000). For non-HE Institutions, NHS R&D may fund 100% of costs. The HSDR Programme reserves the right to award a grant for less than the amount sought by applicants where appropriate.

Dissemination and knowledge mobilisation

Applicants should make clear how findings will be communicated effectively to a wide variety of academic, policy, service  and public audiences. Researchers should recognise that the HSDR Programme funds projects which show a creative and proactive approach to engaging with the NHS and Social Care management and leadership communities. Researchers of successful projects will be expected to deliver the following written outputs: an executive summary with clearly identified policy, managerial and practice implications; a full report detailing all the work undertaken, and; supporting technical appendices.

Applicants should outline plans for conference, seminar and other forms of dissemination to go alongside written communications. Where appropriate, the proposed work should lead to peer-reviewed publications.

Further information

Any questions in relation to this call for proposals should be sent by email to Applicants should be aware that while every effort will be made to respond to enquiries in a timely fashion, these should be received at least 2 weeks before the closing date.

Full details regarding closing dates, selection criteria and assessment processes, guidance on completing the online application form, FAQs and other relevant information are available on the website. We strongly recommend that you review this information before completing your application form.

‘Non-Competitive’ means that a proposal is not of a sufficiently high standard to be taken forward for further assessment in comparison with other proposals received and funded by the HSDR Programme, because it has little or no realistic prospect of funding. This may be because of scientific quality, cost, scale/duration, or the makeup of the project team.