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NIHR Health Protection Research Units: Guidance for Applicants Stage 1


Published: 20 September 2023

Version: 1.0 September 2023

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The mission of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. NIHR delivers against this mission through six core workstreams set out in Best Research for Best Health - the next chapter

The NIHR is launching a new, two-stage, open competition to designate and fund NIHR Health Protection Research Units (HPRUs) in England. NIHR HPRUs are partnerships between Universities and the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and will act as centres of excellence in multi-disciplinary health protection research in key priority areas.

The purpose of the NIHR HPRU scheme is to support UKHSA in delivering its functions and objectives for public health protection, including an immediate response to emerging priorities and by building an evidence base for public health protection policy and practice.  

At Stage 1 Universities who judge themselves to have substantial portfolios of world class multidisciplinary health protection research in a relevant priority area, and will work in partnership with UKHSA, are invited to submit an application.  Shortlisted applications at Stage 1 will be invited to submit a full application, which should be co-produced in partnership with UKHSA, at Stage 2.   

Priority Areas

Research partnerships are sought in the following priority areas with the expectation that one NIHR HPRU will be funded in each priority area:

  • Evaluation and Behavioural Science
  • Health Analytics and Modelling
  • Emergency Preparedness and Response
  • Public Health Genomics
  • Chemical Threats and Hazards
  • Radiation Threats and Hazards
  • Climate Change and Health Security
  • Respiratory Infections
  • Emerging Zoonoses
  • Gastrointestinal Infections
  • Blood Borne and Sexually Transmitted infections
  • Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance 
  • Vaccines and Immunisation

Annex 2 contains summary objectives for each priority area.  Your application should be developed in response to the priority areas listed.   Applications may also include additional health protection ideas but these must be relevant to UKHSA’s remit (UKHSA Science Strategy 2023 to 2033 Securing health and prosperity)


The aims of the NIHR HPRUs are to:  

  • create an environment where world class health protection research, focused on the needs of the public, can thrive.
  • focus on priority areas which will have the greatest impact on public health protection.
  • provide high quality research evidence to inform decision-making by public health professionals, policy makers, those involved in operational delivery and service users.
  • enable translation of advances in health protection research into benefits for patients, service users and the public.
  • increase capacity and capability to conduct high quality multi-disciplinary health protection research and facilitate knowledge exchange and expertise across universities and UKHSA.
  • provide a flexible staff capacity in the event of a major health protection incident and retain a level of responsive research capacity to address emerging health protection research requirements.
  • contribute to addressing health inequalities through an increasing focus on underserved communities including relevant interventions, improving health outcomes in the health and care sector and for broader economic gain.


NIHR HPRUs will perform world class, translational health protection research bringing together leading academic institutions with health protection professionals.  Each NIHR HPRU will have a focus on a priority area addressing specific health protection research requirements.  All NIHR HPRUs will consider Health Equity and Inclusion Health in order to understand health impacts on vulnerable groups and underserved communities, and the impact of interventions to reduce inequalities. 

For each priority research area, funding will be awarded to a single University working in partnership with UKHSA and is to be used to support excellent health protection research relevant to the needs of UKHSA and as agreed with NIHR.  The purpose of the funding is to meet the research costs incurred by the University/UKHSA partnership in undertaking an approved programme of multidisciplinary research, including the funding of salaries for researchers and research support staff. 

The focus of the remit of activity within an NIHR HPRU will be the delivery of health protection research in priority areas.  Each NIHR HPRU will be led by a Director from the Host University with proven experience and leadership in health protection research, including evidence of their ability to influence the practice of health protection delivery.  To support health protection, all NIHR HPRUs,  in addition to their work with UKHSA, will need to work with other relevant parts of the health and care system.

All NIHR HPRUs will be expected to work together to provide the experience and expertise to drive forward evidence generation in order to inform policy decisions or operational delivery.  Additionally, through collaborative working, the NIHR HPRUs will aim to facilitate where feasible the translation of health protection research findings into implementable evidence based approaches to managing and improving public health.  

All NIHR HPRUs should take a multidisciplinary approach to their work.  Specifically, all NIHR HPRUs focussed on infectious disease topics should incorporate microbiology, virology, epidemiology and other disciplines as appropriate into their programme of work supporting multidisciplinary research.  

Priorities within the health and care system change and NIHR HPRUs will be expected to be responsive to support UKHSA’s response to emerging needs and situations that can arise (nationally and globally) which require access to research, research expertise and resources at short notice.  NIHR HPRUs will be expected to prioritise resources towards addressing national health and care priorities at the request of UKHSA and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)/NIHR.

NIHR HPRUs covering infectious diseases, emergency preparedness and the cross-cutting units will be required to include a specific theme addressing pandemic preparedness.  This will include research to support the development of the evidence and tools required to strengthen pandemic preparedness, having a strong virology component to aid research into the evaluation of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines for pathogens of pandemic potential.

Once funded, the NIHR HPRUs will be expected to continue to work with UKHSA and DHSC/NIHR to ensure that the agreed research programme evolves to meet the needs of UKHSA in delivering its objectives and functions for health protection during the five-year award.  Each NIHR HPRU will be expected to identify an appropriately qualified individual to lead on biosecurity and provide advice to DHSC (including specifically to the CMO team and CSA), and to UKHSA when called upon to do so, to support the UK government’s Biological Security Strategy. As part of this, some HPRU staff will be expected to obtain Developed Vetting (DV) security clearance. 

Detailed work programmes at project level will be agreed post-commissioning with NIHR HPRUs expected to leverage additional research funding, including from other public, charity and industry research funding sources to undertake full scale studies.  

Skills and Workforce Development

NIHR HPRUs will have a remit to support the development of a highly skilled research workforce to support the development of health protection and meet growing demands in this area.  This should include skills development and training, in discussion with UKHSA, on the basis of emerging needs for example toxicology, and in developing future research leaders in this area. NIHR HPRUs will be expected to demonstrate how they will support skills in the workforce development by providing theoretical and practical training, other placements and translational exchange fellowships. Each NIHR HPRU will be expected to appoint an Academic Career Development (ACD) lead and to provide support across the career development pathway for staff at all levels from early training into continuous professional development to build capacity and expertise within health protection research.     

The NIHR HPRUs will be expected to collaborate and engage with each other to support the transfer of knowledge and best practice in research capacity development. This will be facilitated by individual ACD Leads within each NIHR HPRU.  

Application process 

At Stage 1, Universities who judge themselves to have substantial portfolios of world class multidisciplinary health protection research in a relevant priority area, and will work in partnership with UKHSA, are invited to submit an application. At Stage 1, universities will be expected to demonstrate a commitment to academic career development, Public Patient Involvement and Engagement (PPIE) and collaboration.  Shortlisted applications at Stage 1 will be invited to submit a full application, which should be co-produced in partnership with UKHSA, at Stage 2.  Annex 1 contains an outline of the Stage 1 Application Form.

Eligibility Criteria

All universities in England are eligible to apply that can demonstrate a substantial portfolio of health protection research in a relevant priority area (i.e the host university).   

At Stage 1, each application must be submitted by a single host University.  Some Universities may consider that they have substantial research portfolios in more than one of the priority areas listed and that they could be successful in being awarded more than one NIHR HPRU. Therefore, we will accept more than one Stage 1 application from a single University addressing a different priority area. However, the application and related material must be directly relevant to an individual priority area as listed.     

Host Universities are strongly encouraged to work with other Universities and/or organisations that could bring additional strength and depth to the NIHR HPRU’s work plan and build capacity across the country.  The host University may identify an additional University and/or organisations who would form part of the designated NIHR HPRU and would work with the contracted host University/UKHSA partnership to deliver its programme of work.  Any additional University and/or organisations would have specified roles in the application as collaborators. The funding will not support large consortia proposals with multiple lead institutions.  

During Stage 2, applicants will be required to present a detailed programme of work, the type and structure of the relationships with the different proposed partners and a full financial plan. In addition, a public sector partner with a strong research portfolio which can bring added value can also form part of the NIHR HPRU application at Stage 2.

Each NIHR HPRU will be led by a single Unit Director who has a contractual relationship with the lead university and will have direct control of the funding. UKHSA will designate a UKHSA lead for each NIHR HPRU. 

Funding Available

A total of up to £77 million is available for the NIHR HPRU scheme over a five year period (starting 1st April 2025).  The expectation is that thirteen units are likely to be funded, i.e. one for each priority area.  The amount of funding has not been predetermined however funding is expected to be no more than £5.5 million per NIHR HPRU for the five-year period.  For this call we will be commissioning only one NIHR HPRU addressing Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance with a funding limit up to £11 million for the five-year period.  All funding decisions will be informed by the scale, nature and quality of the research activity to be conducted by an individual NIHR HPRU.   

Successful lead universities will enter into a formal partnership agreement with UKHSA.  Additionally, it will be permissible to pass funding from the host University to other collaborating institutions involved in the work of the NIHR HPRU via a subcontract, provided that there are good reasons for doing so and these are justified in the full application.

Provision of additional NIHR funding at Stage 2 may be considered for smaller awards on the recommendation of the funding committee where applications have not been selected for full NIHR HPRU designation but have demonstrated high quality in a specific targeted area of research within a priority topic or where applications that include multiple Themes may be reduced. If smaller awards are made in the same topic area as an NIHR HPRU, there will be one UKHSA lead for both awards and UKHSA will act as a focal point.   

NIHR HPRU Academic Career Development and Training 

The NIHR HPRUs are expected as part of their full bid to lay out their academic and career development training offer. 

NIHR HPRU Scheme Lead Activities

There will also be the opportunity for individual NIHR HPRUs to apply to lead Knowledge Mobilisation and Methodological Hubs. The purpose of these Hubs will be to provide a platform for strategic coordination and a focal point for collaboration between the designated NIHR HPRUs.  Post commissioning, each successful NIHR HPRU can apply for funding to lead a specific hub.  Further details on the process to designate the host organisation for these lead activities will be provided following the designation and funding of NIHR HPRUs.

Further considerations

Public and community involvement, engagement and participation 

The NIHR HPRUs will be expected to work with relevant communities and individuals to develop their strategy for public and community involvement, engagement and participation and consider how their plans will contribute to delivering impact on health protection.  Applicants will be required to explain how they will address public and community involvement, engagement and participation in their research and, successful applicants, required to submit a final plan within 6 months of the contract and expected to appoint a PPIE Lead to support the delivery of their PPIE plans

NIHR HPRUs will need to consider how their plans will respond to current challenges and opportunities for involvement, engagement and participation including: reflecting the diversity of the relevant populations, fostering community-led approaches to research, developing new methods and approaches, and demonstrating the impact of this agenda on improving health protection research. 

NIHR HPRUs should also consider how their plans will incorporate the six UK standards for public involvement in research; Inclusive Opportunities, Working Together, Communication, Learning and Support, Impact and Governance. The standards provide a framework for reflecting on and improving the purpose, quality and consistency of public involvement in research. They describe the building blocks for good practice and provide a baseline of expectations. 

Please refer and adhere to the NIHR definitions of ‘public’, ‘involvement’, ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’:

Research Inclusion  

Embedding inclusion in everything we do is one of the NIHR’s key operating principles and is key to the successful delivery of NIHR’s Research Inclusion Strategy 2022-2027. This requires active involvement of everyone within our NIHR people framework. Award holders will be expected to develop a distinct Research Inclusion strategy along with the allocation of appropriate resources, to demonstrate how this will be embedded throughout their research, culture and systems, in line with the themes outlined in NIHR’s Research Inclusion Strategy 2022 - 2027.  Applicants will be required to explain fully how they will address research inclusion and successful applicants will be required to appoint a Research Inclusion Lead and submit a final plan within 6 months of the contract.

The NIHR INCLUDE project has issued guidance on improving inclusion of under-served groups in clinical research.  The HPRUs are expected to consider under-served groups, as well as working to ensure equality of opportunity for individuals who share a protected characteristic as set out in the UK’s Equality Act 2010.  Alongside these characteristics, the NIHR also considers socio-economic status, geographical location and access to health and social care: 

  • Universities applying to the HPRU award will be required to demonstrate how the protected characteristics have been considered and addressed, including steps taken to ensure the work reduces existing inequalities, where appropriate, and should evidence how mitigation measures will reduce such inequalities.
  • HPRUs should demonstrate how they support greater equality of opportunities through the skills training and workforce development offered. As part of this, HPRUs may undertake an assessment of their own diversity, especially within leadership and governance structures.  The HPRUs’ reflections on equality, diversity and inclusion will be considered as part of the overall assessment process.


NIHR HPRUs should consider the approach and strategy of the proposed Unit’s industry-collaborative research, and where possible provide examples of key strategic partnerships already in place that are directly relevant to the proposed Themes. This could include evidence of a prior track-record working with industry, forward plans, or outline of a strategy for working with industry (including the life sciences industry and small and medium sized enterprises). Examples of the proposed industry collaborations should align with the research priority areas in Annex 2 and outline how the proposed collaboration supports UKHSA in delivering its objectives. 

Competition Process and Timetable

Stage 1:  Selection Criteria

At Stage 1 an Independent Funding Committee will review applications and make recommendations to DHSC on which applicants should be invited to submit a Stage 2 application. The information provided in the Stage 1 application will be assessed against the following selection criteria:  

    • the depth and breadth of high-quality health protection research;
    • the existing capacity and capability to support health protection research and plans for increasing capacity;
    • the track-record of the University and collaborators in conducting world class health protection research and translating this research into benefits for the public in the relevant priority area;
    • the track-record and ability to work collaboratively with UKHSA and other sectors engaged in public health research.

Stage 2:  Applicants invited to Stage 2 will be provided with further guidance.  

Stage 1

17 October 2023

Invitation to submit an Initial Application (Stage 1)

02 November 2023

Webinar briefing for potential applicants

5 December 2023

Closing date for receipt of initial applications 

January 2024

Independent Funding Committee recommends a shortlist of applications to be invited to submit full applications (Stage 2)

Stage 2

February 2024

Stage 2 guidance and invitation to submit full application (Stage 2)

May 2024

Closing date for receipt of full applications

July 2024

Independent Funding Committee meeting with applicant interviews

August 2024

Department of Health and Social Care confirm selected NIHR HPRUs

1 April 2025

Funding for selected NIHR HPRUs commences

Please note that the following research areas are excluded from this call:

  • Animal research: the NIHR does not support work involving animals or their tissues; 
  • De novo development of new vaccines and therapeutics;
  • Clinical trials that we would normally expect to be funded through other NIHR programmes.

Annex 1:  Outline of the Stage 1 Application Form

Applications must be submitted electronically via the Research Management System (RMS). The following information is requested:

  1. Proposed Priority Area

Taken from the list provided in the Guidance (see also Annex 2).

  1. Details of the proposed NIHR HPRU 

Please use the following format NIHR-Name of the Priority Area-HPRU

  1. Director of the proposed NIHR HPRU 

Please provide the name of the proposed Director. 

  1. Please provide details of the host university  

Please select the name of the host University using the drop-down menu.

Details of the University and authorisations to endorse the application for an NIHR HPRU and confirm that appropriate support will be provided should the application be successful. Specified representatives of the institution should fully endorse the application for an NIHR HPRU award and confirm that appropriate support will be provided to the Unit should the application for funding be successful.

Please include the commitment to the proposed HPRU by the applicant University.  This commitment and contribution (financial and/or other) must be explicitly stated in the application and must reflect the importance of the research to the organisation. This should include: 

  • The existing research posts which would form part of the proposed HPRU.
  • The facilities the University can provide to the HPRU.
  • How the University will accommodate having UKHSA staff working in their facilities (e.g. through appropriate seniority honorary contracts, honorary senior lectureships or honorary professorships, secondments or short placements).
  • How the University plans to support students’ experience and training at the HEI, UKHSA, and local authorities during their post and in their early career path.
  • How the University will contribute to the HPRU e.g. overhead rates charged.
  1. Please provide details of any other partners 

Please list any additional partners that will be formal partners in the NIHR HPRU. Formal agreement from these partners will be sought at Stage 2. 

  1. Overall funding requested

Please provide an indicative total cost for the proposed NIHR HPRU; this value should be within 5% of the final costs that will be submitted in a Stage 2 application. A full breakdown of costs will be required at Stage 2.

  1. Proposed Director leadership and expertise 
  • Please provide a summary describing the applicant’s track-record in the priority area and their vision for the proposed HPRU (250 words).
  • Please summarise the proposed Director leadership and expertise in health protection research.  This should include (600 words): 
    - The organisational leadership experience of the Director, including evidence of their ability to influence the practice of health protection delivery at a local, regional and/or national/international level; 
    - Evidence of their experience in progressing health protection research; 
    - A statement highlighting the Director’s commitment to, and experience of, improving research culture and equality, diversity and inclusivity in the research workforce;
    - Evidence of commitment to developing research capacity and capability within health protection research, including supporting emerging leaders and plans for succession.

The proposed NIHR HPRU Director is required to submit a CV within the RMS which covers their respective track-records in terms of: (a) publication output; (b) success at attracting external research funding, and; (c) conducting successful research in the priority research area.  The NIHR HPRU Director is able to provide a maximum of 10 relevant publications for the CV, for which they are a named author.

  1. Expertise in health protection research within relevant priority area

8.1 Please provide a brief description of the expertise which will underpin the activities of the NIHR HPRU. (500 words)

8.2  Please describe the approach and strategy of the proposed NIHR HPRU for working with UKHSA and any other partners that are directly relevant to the proposed Themes. (500 words)

8.3  Please describe the existing strengths and track-record in the proposed priority area, including the impact the applicants’ research has had on public health.

This should include:

  • The track-record of the University in the proposed priority area.
  • The track-record of working collaboratively with relevant stakeholders, and expected future ability and appetite to work collaboratively with other sectors engaged in public health protection research.
  • The added value the University will bring to the partnership with UKHSA.

8.4 Please provide up to three case studies over the last five-year period of how previous research in the proposed priority area has supported UKHSA in delivering its functions and objectives for public health protection and been used, for example, to inform decision-making by public health professionals, implemented to deliver changes to public health practice and/or to lead to improved outcomes for patients and the public. The information presented should be understandable to all members of the funding committee and should be written clearly  without the use of jargon and any technical terms should be explained. (400 words per case study) 

  1. Outline Strategic Plan 

9.1 Please provide a plain English summary of the vision, rationale and goals of the proposed NIHR HPRU. (500 words)

9.2 Please provide a scientific summary of the vision, scientific rationale/context and goals of the proposed NIHR HPRU. (500 words) 

9.3 Please provide a description of the proposed NIHR HPRU. Please include the areas to be addressed as a set of ‘Themes’ and how the themes will dovetail into a coherent NIHR HPRU. The plan should set out how the HPRU will meet the published aims of the scheme. The Universities organisation’s approach to improvements in research culture and plans to embed equality, diversity and inclusion across the proposed activities should be clearly explained. (1500 words)

    10. Declaration and Signature

RMS will automatically generate “sign off” emails from the Director(s) and university-level authority 

Annex 2: Priority Areas


Priority Areas

Summary Paragraph


Evaluation and Behavioural Science

Research including enhancing methodologies for designing and evaluating health protection interventions, particularly those involving behaviour change. Evidence synthesis and research into translation of evidence into policy and practice.


Health Analytics and Modelling 

Research into data analytics and modelling in health protection including all threats. Develop system capabilities and capacity for health protection analytics, and modelling including techniques such as statistical analysis, data mining, machine learning, and deep learning for health protection and scenario modelling to inform policy on the impacts of interventions. Research to include Health Economics to undertake cost-effectiveness evaluations of interventions. 


Emergency Preparedness and Response

Research to improve the capability to plan, prepare for and respond to major health protection incidents and emergencies affecting the UK public including both infectious diseases and environmental threats to health. To focus on evidence of effective preparedness and response including operational aspects.  


Public Health Genomics 

Research to enhance health protection surveillance and response through the development and application of genomics approaches and integrating genomic and other types of data. The unit should consider both laboratory, analytical aspects of genomics particularly implementation and evaluation tools and approaches for public health benefit. 


Chemical Threats and Hazards 

Research to inform understanding of the health impacts and the risk assessment of chemical hazards and environmental exposure to pollutants and their risk management through policy and/or practice. This to include relevant aspects of outdoor air quality and health. Excluding aspects of biological threats. Development of toxicological capacity and inclusion of deliberate releases.


Radiation Threats and Hazards

Research to improve evidence and capacity for effective control of radiation risks to health. This to include research required to strengthen response to accidental and deliberate releases. 


Climate Change and Health Security

Research to inform work to protect health in the context of a changing climate. This includes improving understanding of the health impacts of climate change and effective interventions to protect health including approaches to adaptation and interventions to support resilience to climate change, particularly for vulnerable populations. To include research into indoor air quality including mould and other indoor contaminants. This unit does not include net zero and mitigation actions, active transport and health improvement research which is covered through other funding routes and is outside the scope of UKHSA


Respiratory Infections

Research to improve effectiveness in the prevention and control of respiratory infections, including TB and responding to outbreaks including both epidemiology and microbiology aspects of respiratory infections, including diagnostic evaluation. 


Gastrointestinal Infections

Research to improve effectiveness in prevention of gastrointestinal infections and responding to outbreaks.


Emerging Zoonoses 

Research to provide a better understanding of emerging infections and zoonoses supporting a one health approach, their impact on humans, including those with animal reservoirs and how to improve effectiveness in the prevention, detection, and response to outbreaks.


Blood Borne and Sexually Transmitted Infections

Research to improve effectiveness in preventing and reducing the burden on infections transmitted through blood and/or sexual contact: STIs including HIV Hepatitis, including epidemiological and microbiological aspects. Research into accelerating progress against elimination targets 


Vaccines and Immunisation

Research to improve health outcomes through vaccines including both research to support the development and evaluation of new vaccines, including, importantly immunology research as well as research to optimise immunisation programmes and schedules. 


Healthcare Associated Infections and AMR
(1 unit) 

Multidisciplinary research to inform the prevention and control of healthcare associated infections and of antimicrobial resistance and support the delivery and accelerate progress towards the AMR action plan.