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NIHR Population Health Career Scientist Award Specification Document 2024


Published: 26 January 2024

Version: 1.3

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This round of the NIHR Population Health Career Scientist Award (PHCSA) opened on 16 April 2024.

We wish to develop and enhance research expertise in the most important areas affecting population health by supporting the next generation of independent public health research leaders.

The PHCSA is a UK-wide initiative to enable senior researchers to make the next step to Reader/Professor level in their host institutions. If the applicant imminently expects, or a process has been started, to progress to a Professorial position, then it is unlikely they will be eligible for this award and may wish to consider another NIHR Fellowship option. It is the applicants' responsibility to inform the PHCSA team if their professional situation changes or develops over the course of the application timeline.

The PHCSA forms part of a series of initiatives and investment by NIHR to enable local government to become more research-active and help answer the most important research questions facing policymakers and services at local and national levels.

In growing recognition of the need to tackle wider preventable risk factors and determinants of health, there is an expectation that the research supported through this award will be of importance and relevance to local government, ideally with explicit support from local government colleagues.

The award is funded through our Public Health Research (PHR) Programme and is being delivered jointly by the PHR Programme and the NIHR Academy. It aligns with other relevant NIHR initiatives, in particular the development of Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs) and the NIHR Academy local authority academic fellowship scheme, and is part of the wider Programme of Fellowships that includes the NIHR Advanced Fellowships.

By developing academic research expertise alongside capacity and capability in local government, the intention is that there will be true ‘synergy’, with success breeding success in attracting further funding from a range of sources.

The PHCSA constitutes dedicated additional investment aimed at building capacity in areas relevant to population health and the needs of local government. This exciting initiative will help support local government decision making by focusing on research programmes directly relevant to and co-produced with local government colleagues. Importantly, providing the investment and support to facilitate greater links between research and practice will provide the opportunity for researchers to become immersed in the local government context and directly commission research to meet local government evidence needs.


The health of the public is fundamentally influenced by the wider determinants, or drivers, of health. The work of local government profoundly impacts on these drivers, but there remains a relative paucity of useful evidence around what are the most cost-effective policies and interventions that can impact on these drivers and in turn improve population health and reduce health inequalities. It is vital that local government is better supported to become more research-active and further build the evidence base both on what needs to be done and how best to implement policies and interventions. Research activity demands infrastructure within and owned by local government, mirroring the culture of research that has taken many years to develop in the NHS. Since 2013, local authorities within England have had primary responsibility for public health and in the devolved administrations local government works closely with the national public health agencies.

Work to understand the research and evidence challenges facing local authorities started before the COVID-19 pandemic, with external reports from sources such as NETSA, SOLACE and LACoR. In 2018/19 Professor Chris Whitty visited local authorities within England to hear about the public health challenges local authorities face and how research can help to address them. A round-table event with local authority leaders was hosted by Professor Whitty and Dame Professor Anne Johnson at the Kings Fund in 2019. To access the report from this event please email a request to

In recognition of the challenges faced by local authorities, we have begun to widen our initiatives aimed at strengthening the research culture within local government, aiming to build and strengthen capacity and capability both within councils and academic institutions.

Of particular note are the Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) that provide evaluations of public health interventions to local authorities, as well as the 14 NIHR Local Authority Research Systems projects commissioned in the summer of 2020. These projects were tasked with rapidly reviewing how research systems and structures within local authorities across the UK could be developed and enhanced should they be provided with the tools to do so.

This learning was central to the development and subsequent commissioning of the 30 Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs), which aim to boost capacity and capability within local government. A summary of the Local Authority Research Systems reports can be accessed upon request by emailing the programme as linked above.

Aim and scope

We wish to support and develop the next generation of public health research leaders in order to strengthen capacity in areas of strategic focus, in particular the wider determinants of health. While the aim of the PHCSA will build on previous similar initiatives such as the Public Health Career Scientist Award that supported the transition of senior researchers to Reader/Professor level and complements the NIHR advanced fellowships which provide a vehicle for researchers to transition between career stages, there is also a desire to attract researchers from outside the disciplines more usually associated with public health research to include the wide range of disciplines which undertake research in areas which impact the determinants of health, for example:

  • environmental science
  • mathematics
  • architecture
  • engineering
  • geography
  • education
  • social sciences
  • social policy
  • arts

Please note that individuals who are already Professor level and wishing to transition to another subject area will not be eligible for the PHCSA.

This will be the fourth commissioning round for the PHCSA. Examples of disciplines and subject areas previously funded include:

  • health geography
  • housing
  • mental health
  • child poverty

Through this scheme, we are keen to receive innovative and ambitious applications (e.g. those that make the best use of data linkage and modelling techniques or arts approaches to engage communities in co-production) across a broad range of areas of population health. All research proposals must be within the remit of the PHR Programme although a broad view of this will be taken. The crux of successful applications will lie in a combination of the following:

  • the quality of the candidate and their potential as a future leader in population health research
  • the importance and likely impact of the research being proposed
  • the particular contribution that the discipline can make to improving population health and reducing health inequalities / tackling wider disadvantage

Areas of particular interest which would be considered in scope for the PHCSA include, but are not limited to, programmes of population level research that:

  • address the major determinants of poor health and of health inequalities in the UK which could include (but not limited to):
    • enhancing our understanding of how the built environment can help to improve air quality and/or mitigate the impact of climate change
    • demonstrating the value of investing in early years interventions for future health and well-being
  • develop our understanding of what are the most important policies and interventions to implement to tackle disadvantage and reduce health inequalities
  • develop and use innovative methodologies to answer the most pressing population health research questions - including dynamic modelling, linkage of routinely collected data and making optimum use of digital technologies

Whatever research is supported through this scheme, applicants will need to demonstrate that they have mechanisms in place to ensure:

  • that the research they are proposing addresses an evidence gap and is needed by, and can be used by, local health and social care systems
  • effective dissemination and shared learning across local government and the wider health system

As already noted, this scheme is intended to complement the HDRCs as part of an overall strategy to enhance R&D activity of relevance to local government and wider population health.

Applicants will need to demonstrate that they have given serious thought to the data required and the feasibility of accessing and combining relevant data.

Applicants will also need to ensure they build in a comprehensive training programme to support their future career as a research leader in population health.

Who can apply?

The PHCSA is a UK-wide initiative open to applicants from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The term ‘local authority’ has been used consistently as ‘shorthand’ in this document to mean local government organisations and equivalent structures throughout the UK that plan and commission services to improve population health both directly and indirectly.

Individual applicants will need to be based in an eligible Higher Education Institution (HEI) or equivalent in the UK and will be expected to have explicit support from their host organisations over the duration of the award either in the form of funding or resources ‘in kind’ (e.g. research assistant support/PhD students to the Fellow if successful). Once available, please read the guidance notes for further information on how to apply.

Candidates are expected to either be starting to establish themselves as an independent researcher in a public health or non-traditional public health discipline, or are already established as an independent researcher but are not yet recognised as an international leader in their field. Due allowance will be given to those whose career has been affected by either a late start or interruption for personal or family reasons, including the pandemic. Standard NIHR eligibility criteria apply.

Applicants should have a track record of holding research funding and be able to show they have made important contributions in their area of research. They should also be able to demonstrate the commitment to work in partnership with local authorities to develop a research culture and a willingness to develop and mentor less research-active individuals.

What will the PHCSA support?

To ensure that NIHR research takes place in the areas and communities of greatest need, it is anticipated that a range of applications will be funded across the UK including in institutions that have not yet established an international reputation for public health research but are based in areas where the need to develop capacity and capability is very apparent. Similarly, we are very keen to encourage applications from non-traditional public health disciplines, particularly where existing strong collaborations with more traditional disciplines can be evidenced. However, the primary drivers of funding these awards will be the quality of applicants and the ability to demonstrate the importance and relevance of the proposed research.

Each PHCSA will be for a period of 5 years (full-time equivalent) and will provide funding to cover salary and research expenses.

It is envisaged that the scheme will be run over subsequent fellowship rounds (next call likely April 2025) to achieve a cohort of leaders in population health research encompassing both geographical and/or theme coverage. All award-holders would be expected to participate in NIHR Academy activities as part of the wider ‘family’ of personal award-holders.

Transparency agenda

In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety to the general public via the contracts finder website.