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NIHR PLAF Chairs Report - Round 2


Published: 20 December 2022

Version: 1.2 - December 2022

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Competition Summary

The second annual PLAF call launched on 27th January 2022 and closed to new applications on the 31st March 2022.

The PLAF Selection Committee convened on the 20th May 2022 to discuss the applications and make recommendations for fellowships.

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

Round 1 (pilot) 2021
Applied (for full support): 18
Awarded (full support): 15
Applied (for bridging support): 10
Awarded (bridging support): 5

Round 2 2022
Applied (for full support): 20
Awarded (full support): 12
Applied (for bridging support): 2
Awarded (bridging support): 1

The PLAF scheme supports individuals based within local authorities and associated settings to (all on their existing salary):

  • develop a proposal for funded PhD study;
  • undertake a personalised programme of research training;
  • access focussed supervision and mentorship;
  • attend relevant conferences and networking events
  • meet some ongoing work commitments within fellowship time;

By the end of a PLAF, the fellow is expected to have become a competitive applicant for fully funded PhD study.

Observations made by Dr Robbie Duschinsky, Chair of the PLAF Scheme’s Selection Committee 2022

In my view, the NIHR’s PLAF scheme represents a tremendously exciting opportunity to support the ongoing development of research activity within local authorities, services commissioned by local authorities, and across a wide variety of allied organisations such as charities, home care agencies and care homes. The scheme is undoubtedly helping to grow local authority associated researchers, and so in time will serve to promote the much needed growth of evidence-bases within this area of practice.

The selection committee and I were very impressed by the quality of the applications and their potential to add value; the strongest really were exceptional and once again demonstrated the potential of the sector and its people to generate and lead on impactful research activity. Applications also covered a diverse field of research topics and areas of practice, which was equally notable and pleasing.

Several applications to this year’s competition were re-submissions, and I was delighted to see that, in general, their authors had implemented what feedback they had received with great success, resolving weaknesses and further sharpening strengths. I am not sure I have ever sat on a funding committee, NIHR or otherwise, where I have seen such effective use of previous feedback by re-submitting candidates.

The strongest applicants in this round:

  • Demonstrated commitment to a career that combines continued practice and professional development with research and research leadership;
  • Presented plans for research during the PLAF or in subsequent doctoral research that seemed realistic and sufficiently narrow to be achievable, and that have clear relevance and potential benefit to their local authority-related context and the wider sector;
  • Were specific in detailing the appropriateness of the award to their experience and trajectory through a careful evaluation of their training needs (e.g. using Vitae) and used this to inform their training plan;
  • Presented a training plan that was clearly set out, and in excellent alignment with the research they would like to subsequently pursue. In many cases this comprised a well-considered ‘pick-and-mix’ of courses from various universities, though in some cases the training needs could be met by courses at a single institution. In general, strong applicants included some methods training of specific relevance to their research plans;
  • Included well thought-out involvement of service-users, patients or relevant citizens or stakeholders in their training plan, and, in some cases, had already consulted with service-users or other relevant individuals or groups in the development of the PLAF application;
  • Made a convincing case that they will be able to submit a competitive doctoral fellowship application following completion of the award;
  • Had the support of supervisors with subject knowledge and a track record of graduate supervision, who had given time for discussion and helped develop the application;
  • Described with specific detail how the proposed supervisor will support them to undertake the training and development programme, including how many contact hours they will receive;
  • Provided good justification for their choice of mentor, and indicated how many contact hours they will receive;
  • Highlighted specific aspects of their proposed research environment that will support their development and research;
  • Had made contact with collaborators (e.g. directly relevant academics, third sector organisations, etc.) and offered enough description of the collaboration that reviewers could understand how the relationship would benefit the applicant’s development and fellowship plans;
  • Included a strong, well-tailored statement of support from the partnering host organisations, confirming protected time for the fellowship, and indicating present and future commitment to supporting the applicant as a researcher-practitioner within the organisations.

Some especially common pitfalls, even in some otherwise strong applications, included:

  • The University and/or Local Authority or other host organisation had not tailored their supporting statement, which sounded generic or unrelated to the specific needs of the applicant
  • The applicant neglected to describe what had resulted from any previous research they had conducted e.g. whether they reported to stakeholders, whether they had learnt skills relevant to the present fellowship etc
  • The applicant did not offer sufficient clarity regarding their exact research interests, and how work on the topic would benefit local authority-relevant practice
  • The training plan was not exactly aligned with identified training needs and future research plans
  • The application contained inadequate plans for service-user, patient, citizen or stakeholder engagement, or inadequate costing for this
  • The applicant neglected to discuss how the award of a fellowship will serve to support their aspirations and plans for professional development alongside their funded academic development, and/or how it will further their career as a practitioner-researcher.

I was also struck that relatively few candidates appeared to have accessed the support available to them through the NIHR RDS (Research Design Service). The service offers a wealth of advice and signposting, and I advise all prospective applicants to seek its assistance at the earliest opportunity!

Finally, I would note that, much like the development of practitioner-researcher careers across local authority settings, the PLAF scheme is still a work in progress. The scheme has only made two calls to date, and we continue to adapt and adjust the offer to maximise its potential. Our second call was the first to make financial provision for public involvement and engagement, and I predict that future calls will demand greater detail from applicants on how this involvement and engagement will be achieved.

Dr Robbie Duschinsky
University of Cambridge

Useful resources

Public Involvement and Engagement

The NIHR expects appropriate and relevant involvement of service users, carers, the public and other key stakeholders in the development and conduct of the projects it supports. Whilst practitioners may have day-in-day-out interactions with users, carers and publics, and so have a sense of their needs and preferences, this cannot substitute for involvement; NIHR expects more direct consultation and work with these groups by prospective researchers in relation to a project they would like to undertake.

Information and resources to assist prospective applicants can be found on the NIHR website (a detailed definition of public involvement in research, and briefing notes for researchers on how to involve the public).

In addition, the NIHR has contributed to a Toolkit for Increasing Participation of Black Asian & Minority Ethnic Groups in Health & Social Care Research, and has produced a further resource on Public Involvement in Social Care Research.

Although no longer updated, the INVOLVE website also serves as a repository of useful information and resources. INVOLVE was funded by the NIHR to support active public involvement and engagement in NHS, public health and social care research.

Applicants may also wish to consider seeking input from elected members at their associated local authorities, these individuals being representatives for their communities.

NIHR Research Design Service

The NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) supports prospective applicants to make high quality applications for research funding from the NIHR and from other national research funders. Assistance is primarily focused around refinement of research questions, research design and methodological support, so complementing the advice applicants receive from supervisors and/or mentors.

The RDS also assists prospective applicants to understand the scope of the NIHR’s various funding streams and to develop public involvement and engagement strategies. This includes involvement of service users, carers and/or practitioners in social care research. The RDS may be able to support applicants with small grants to work up public involvement and engagement plans with, for example, service user groups.

The RDS has regional offices and links with local networks. Further information regarding support that the RDS can provide and contact information for each regional office is available via the NIHR website.

NIHR Applied Research Collaborations

NIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs) support applied health and care research that responds to, and meets, the needs of local populations and local health and care systems. These 15 local partnerships between NHS providers, universities, charities, local authorities, Academic Health Science Networks and other organisations also undertake implementation research to increase the rate at which research findings are implemented into practice.

Applicants should consider contacting their local ARC ahead of making an application, to see if there could be support available.

The ARCs undertake research on a number of areas of need highlighted by the NIHR Futures of Health report, including: the challenges of an ageing society; multimorbidity; and the increasing demands placed on our health and care system.

The £135 million five-year funding also aims to deliver national-level impact through significant collaboration between the ARCs, with individual ARCs providing national leadership within their fields of expertise.

The 15 ARCs are:

NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East of England
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East Midlands
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Greater Manchester
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Kent, Surrey and Sussex
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North East and North Cumbria
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North Thames
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Northwest London
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration North West Coast
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Oxford and Thames Valley
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South London
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Wessex
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration West Midlands
NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Yorkshire and Humber

NIHR Incubators and Schools

The NIHR Incubators have been established to support capacity building and multidisciplinary career development in priority areas where critical mass is low, whilst the NIHR Schools exist to develop evidence bases that will inform and improve practice within particular fields.
The dedicated NIHR Incubators cover numerous fields including public health, social care, and nursing and midwifery, whilst the the NIHR School for Social Care Research, the NIHR School for Public Health Research and the NIHR School for Primary Care Research would similarly welcome contact from individuals seeking support and the opportunity to connect with others who share their interests.

Existing data resources

Applicants are encouraged to consider whether existing data resources may be able to provide suitable data for their future studies, contributing to the feasibility and scope of a study. The UK Data Service provides a unified point of access to an extensive range of high quality social and economic data, including UK census data, government funded surveys, longitudinal studies, international macrodata, and qualitative data.

Peer Support

Titled ‘Developing Local Authority Researchers’, a new workspace on the FutureNHS platform supports developing researchers based within local authorities and allied settings to network, share knowledge and receive notifications of future development opportunities. The workspace is open to all, and includes a forum and members directory, as well as links to other resources and opportunities.