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NIHR Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship Chair's Report - Round 2


Published: 30 August 2023

Version: Final

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The Doctoral Local Authority Fellowship (DLAF) Scheme supports its awardees to undertake a PhD by research, undertake academic training and to develop professionally, all on their existing employment contracts and salaries.

This report describes the proceedings of the second (2022/23) DLAF application assessment process, and details those observations made by the Funding Committee that have been selected for highlighting to prospective DLAF applicants by the committee Chair, Professor Jon Glasby.

The Scheme

The DLAF Scheme constitutes the doctoral tier of the NIHR Local Authority Academic Fellowship Programme, and exists to support practitioners with immediate aspirations for PhD study.

This scheme is open to all employees (excluding medically and dentally qualified individuals) of local authorities and local authority supporting services.

A DLAF supports the award holder to develop their research skills and their professional skill sets in parallel; the former through a fully funded PhD and academic training and the latter through dedicated time for practice and other activities that support their development as a practitioner.

The provision of such opportunities is particularly important to this sector, which can be very fragmented and where there may sometimes be less of an existing research culture or tradition than in some parts of the NHS.

Competition Summary

The second annual call for DLAF applications was made on 15th September 2022, and resulted in 12 submissions. All 12 applicants were deemed eligible for consideration. The Funding Committee shortlisted 8 applicants, all of whom attended for interview on the 3rd May 2023. Five applicants were deemed by the Funding Committee to lie within the fundable range, and all five were offered Fellowships (see Annex 1 at the end of this report). This represents a 42% success rate.

A number of successful candidates had applied during or after a Pre-doctoral Local Authority Fellowship and/or had received feedback on previous applications, and re-submitted. To the Funding Committee, this suggested that something of a pipeline may be beginning to form: which, if so, is cause for celebration. 

The numbers of applications and awards made in response to both the first and second calls are summarised below.

Round 1: 2021/2022
Applied: 8
Shortlisted: 5
Awarded: 3

Round 2: 2022/2023
Applied: 12
Shortlisted: 8
Awarded: 5

The project titles for all the submissions can be found in Annex 1, towards the end of this report.

The Funding Committee

The scheme’s Funding Committee, chaired by Professor Jon Glasby of the University of Birmingham and IMPACT (the UK centre for implementing evidence in adult social care), comprised 13 experienced and established academics who operate across a range of pertinent fields, and are from universities across the United Kingdom. These academic members were joined for both interviewing and shortlisting of applicants by two members with expertise in Public Involvement and Engagement (PI&E).

Members of the scheme’s Funding Committee are listed below.

Funding Committee MemberPrinciple Affiliation
Professor Anya Ahmed Manchester Metropolitan University
Mrs Yesmin Begum None. Lay member with relevant lived experience and PI&E expertise
Professor Lee-Ann Fenge Bournemouth University
Professor Emma Frew University of Birmingham
Professor Jon Glasby (Chair) University of Birmingham/IMPACT
Professor Vivian Hope Liverpool John Moores University
Professor Mat Jones University of the West of England
Professor Hafiz Khan University of West London
Professor G.J Melendez-Torres University of Exeter
Professor Eneida Mioshi University of East Anglia
Professor Oyinlola Oyebode Queen Mary University of London
Dr Clair Phillips None. Lay member with relevant lived experience and PI&E expertise
Professor Karen Spilsbury University of Leeds
Professor Joanne Westwood University of Central Lancashire
Professor Aidan Worsley University of Central Lancashire

Funding Committee Observations

Following conclusion of the assessment process on the 3rd May 2023, the Funding Committee convened on the 30th June 2023 to discuss its experience of reviewing the 12 submitted applications.

Professor Jon Glasby, Chair of the Committee, has since selected the following points of note, which he recommends prospective applicants to consider if developing an application of their own. Essentially, strong applications demonstrate:

  • strong support from the host organisation
  • a focus on topics that are strategically important to the local authority and/or partners
  • ways in which the research might make a difference to policy, practice and people’s lives
  • strong supervisory teams, focused on the needs and development of the applicant
  • sufficient detail of potential methods; even if some flexibility is needed for some of this to be co-designed at a later stage
  • where a mixed methods approach is suggested, how insights from different parts of the research might be integrated
  • a training plan that is really tailored to the needs of the individual.

The need for strong statements of support from the partnership of hosting organisations

The Funding Committee noted that, in some instances, the statements of support provided by the partnership of hosts were under-developed and/or not specifically tailored to the candidate or their research. This is not unexpected given that these Fellowships are very new to local government, but with sufficient consideration should always be addressable prior to submission.

Weak and generic statements, which fail to convey a reassuring level of support for, and understanding of, the proposal and the aspirations of the applicant are detrimental to the competitiveness of the application.

The supporting statements submitted by the host and partner organisation are the only means by which the funding committee can determine the necessary institutional support on which the applicant will draw. The funding committee, therefore, pays considerable attention to these statements and expects them to articulate an ongoing and post-award commitment to the applicant’s career as a researcher practitioner.

Strong supporting statements convey a deeper insight into the candidate’s professional aspirations, an understanding of the benefits of the proposal to the hosting organisations, and the extent to which these organisation may be prepared to support the candidate’s professional aspirations.

The need for applicants to engage with, and focus on, the pressing needs of their local authority setting

A number of applicants submitted research proposals that, whilst likely sound, possessed limited potential to address the key strategic challenges that their services and organisations face.

Applicants are advised to work with their local authority host to identify and develop a research proposal that will be of interest and use to that organisation and to other analogous organisations, and by extension, of value to the career development of the Fellow in itself and beyond the inherent learning and qualifications.

The expectation that the Fellowship will generate research outputs and achieve impact

As publicly funded Fellowships, DLAFs need to include plans for dissemination, and viable routes to making an impact on policy, practice and people’s lives.

Whilst plans might only be at an early stage at the point of application, some candidates did not address them adequately and/or could not expand on them at interview, demonstrating that they had not considered such plans in sufficient detail.

The need for a supervisory team that, between it, meets all the needs of the Fellowship

It is vitally important that the supervisory team bring excellent experience of the topic, the approaches to be utilised, supervision of PhD projects and a commitment to practice-based research. It is unlikely that all of these requirements can be best met by a single academic.

There were a number of very positive examples of early career researchers supporting DLAF applications, but such applications were strongest where they also covered how more senior academic input would be provided to support the development of the supervisor.

Where academic supervisors are appointed from multiple institutions, the application needs to include a plan for how academic supervision will be managed in practice.

The appointed practice supervisors need to be well placed to support the development of relevant professional skillsets and access to opportunities for wider experience. This/these individual(s) should also be able to support and advise the applicant on broader professional development appropriate to their career stage.

The need for applicants proposing co-production to strike a balance between initial detail and scope to influence the research

Research in local government places significant emphasis on co-production, challenging power imbalances and valuing people’s lived experience – and applications with co-production at their core were strongly welcomed.

In such situations, the Funding Committee recognised the difficulty of trying to set out detailed methods upfront whilst still leaving sufficient flexibility to co-design the details of the research. It may sometimes be possible to begin initial co-design as part of the application process, so that there is sufficient initial detail at the point of submission.

Where this is not possible, however, it is still necessary to convey an understanding of the possible methods that may be pursued, the requirements and means of actioning them, and of the associated challenges that such methods may present. Essentially, the Committee needs to see sufficient evidence that these are appropriate and have been well thought through, even if the subsequent research develops differently following a period of more detailed co-design.

The need for applicants proposing a mixed-methods study to be clear on how they will integrate the different elements of their research

Many applicants propose a mixed-methods approach for sound and justifiable reasons. Any such proposal must, however, pay sufficient consideration to how the quantitative and qualitative components and data will be integrated.

As one example, prospective applicants may find this article, and particularly the 10 resources highlighted within it, helpful.

The need to propose a well-considered and tailored training and development plan

Some applications included a training and development plan that was underspecified, or that was not bespoke to their individual circumstances and training needs.

The DLAF is a research training Fellowship and applicants should take advantage of the opportunity to gain experience and develop expertise in areas that will further their professional and academic careers.

Many of the strongest training and development plans submitted for assessment have been built using needs analysis and mapping tools such as the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, and applicants may find such an approach helpful. Practice specific tools are also available for supporting the creation of professional development plans.

The training plan should incorporate sufficient support and training to ensure expertise by the point at which the Fellowship will require it, that will be demonstrable at the end of the award, and that will serve the applicant as they take further steps towards becoming an independent, practice-based researcher.

The benefits of seeking support from the NIHR Research Design Service

Applicants are advised to take full advantage of NIHR’s free Research Design Service (RDS).

The RDS provides support to health, social care and public health researchers across England on all aspects of developing and writing a funding application, including research design, research methods and involving service users, carers and the public. Advice is confidential and free of charge.

RDS advisers have a wealth of experience and proven track records in supporting high quality funding applications. 

The RDS supports applications not only to NIHR research programmes, but also to other open, national, peer-reviewed funding competitions for applied health or social care research, including research charities. The RDS can support a broad range of familiar quantitative, qualitative and mixed-methods research designs, as well as newer and more novel approaches.

To make the best use of the RDS, contact your regional service at an early stage to discuss your research ideas.

Please note that on 1st October 2023 the Research Design Service will be replaced by the new NIHR Research Support Service (RSS).

Until 30th September 2023, please contact your local RDS centre. To provide continuity of support, the RDS will be able to advise existing clients in an extension to this service to the end of March 2024, depending on requirements.

Annex 1

Doctoral Local Authority Fellowships Made to Date

Round 2 (2023) Award Titles

  • What is good health and social care support for trans and gender non-conforming people with a learning disability?
  • Using mixed methods research to investigate child-to-parent violence and abuse
  • Severed families, preventable harm: a mixed methods study investigating kinship in child adoption in England
  • Stories of life and health in an unequal society: how can local government close the health inequalities gap through a better understanding of people’s experiences of resilience, coping, adversity and health in coastal communities?
  • A window of (missed) opportunity? Understanding minor-attracted adults' experiences of suicidality and mental health service interactions, to facilitate improved outcomes.

Round 1 (2022) Award Titles

  • How do Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children who are transitioning from local authority care, and the professionals who support them, discuss integration when based in higher or lower diversity contexts?
  • Equitable access to social care for Black and Asian communities
  • How can our communities in Bolton come together to make sustained change and accelerate our progress towards net-zero carbon emissions?