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NIHR Safeguarding Guidance


Published: 29 September 2020

Version: 1.1 - April 2021

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“Safeguarding” in research is defined as “preventing and addressing any sexual exploitation, abuse, or harassment of research participants, communities and research staff, plus any broader forms of violence, exploitation and abuse ... such as bullying psychological abuse and physical violence”.  (UKCDR, February 2020).

The UK Safeguarding Summit in March 2018 and the International Safeguarding Summit in October 2018 led to a renewed focus on the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the charity and aid sector. Within the framework of the UK’s donor commitments to safeguarding, members of the UK Collaborative for Development Research (UKCDR), including DHSC, DFID, BEIS, UKRI and Wellcome Trust,  signed an International Development Research Funders Safeguarding Statement to develop and maintain the highest standards in organisational culture, systems and practice required to prevent and address all incidents of harm and abuse.

Recognising that these principles are universal and not only applicable in a development context, NIHR has adopted the above principles and incorporated the best practice guidance to develop this Safeguarding Guidance document, which is a key component of the NIHR's position on preventing harm in research. 

Purpose of safeguarding guidance

The information contained in this Safeguarding Guidance document applies to everyone funded by, involved with or working for the NIHR as defined by the NIHR people framework. This includes:

  • those in receipt of NIHR funding and/or support, including through NIHR research and training programmes
  • people who sit on our panels and committees
  • those contributing to and/or participating in NIHR- supported studies
  • Staff based within NIHR coordinating centres.  

This guidance sets out the standard NIHR approach to safeguarding and the principles which Research Organisations / Institutions involved in managing any NIHR funded programmes should apply. 

The guidance is also intended to strengthen the approach of other funders or delivery partners which enter into an MoU or partnership agreement with NIHR.

The information contained in the different sections of this document has been compiled to provide guidance and resources (see the Review and learning section),  to support the development of safeguarding approaches and policies of NIHR contracted organisations, where these do not currently exist.


Due to new Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding opportunities available since 2016, several UK universities and research institutes have increased their involvement in research for international development and are working with partners in low and middle income countries (LMICs). Integrated within international development programming, is the requirement that sufficient consideration is given to safeguarding policy, practice and partnerships in an international context.  Within the wider research sector, there has been an increasingly urgent focus on concepts of vulnerability, risk, harm and power relations for those participating in both national and global health research.  The nature of research presents specific situations in which abuses of power may occur and requires a tailored framework and approach.

Following the International Development Research Funders Safeguarding Statement, UKCDR commissioned a consultation on behalf of the funders, to understand priorities for safeguarding in research. The consultation invited feedback from individuals from academia and the NGO and private sectors in the UK and in low and middle income countries with wide-ranging experience in safeguarding, protection, preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, and research ethics. The data was used to develop a set of principles and best practice guidance on safeguarding in the specific context of international development research.

NIHR has worked closely with other research funders to harmonise approaches and promote awareness and implementation of safeguarding guidance across the research sector.

NIHR’s approach also draws on the research sector’s knowledge of ethics and integrity to develop guidance for health research funded and/or managed by the NIHR.

In developing this guidance document, consideration has been given to the following sources:

Overall responsibility

This NIHR guidance applies to all NIHR staff as well as those involved in NIHR-funded research activities, for example contracting organisations and their staff members, collaborating partners and their staff members, community participants and other stakeholders in all contexts. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility and specific policies are needed to support research to ensure the “do no harm” approach to research (DFID, 2018).

Key principles

All organisations managing and/or receiving NIHR funds are required to ensure that all staff members and partners involved in the delivery chain adhere to their safeguarding responsibilities. This includes not engaging in sexual activity with any individual under the age of 18, even if the age of majority or age of consent is lower in the relevant territory. This also includes children and vulnerable adults in the community who are not direct beneficiaries but may be vulnerable to abuse and harm. 

In addition, organisations should take all reasonable steps to prevent actual, attempted or threatened sexual exploitationabuse or harassmenttransactional sex or any other form of violence, exploitation and abuse such as bullying, psychological abuse and physical violence (together with “Serious Misconduct” as defined in the NIHR contract), by its employees or any other persons engaged and controlled by it to perform any activities under the NIHR contract. Organisations should undertake appropriate vetting and checks, when engaging staff, consultants, sub-contractors and suppliers, and should not engage any staff, consultants, sub-contractors and suppliers, whose previous record or conduct represents an increased and unacceptable risk with regards to safeguarding.

Organisations should ensure compliance with all relevant UK government guidance and legislation in relation to safeguarding, in addition to any specific local legislation (where activities are outside the UK), to ensure the relevant safeguarding and protection of children and vulnerable adults.  This may include vetting of staff and suppliers who may be working closely with children and vulnerable groups, through the UK Disclosure and Barring Service, or other local equivalent service and / or online vetting service for which the organisation has a subscription. NIHR may make reasonable requests for additional vetting in cases where NIHR believes there are increased safeguarding risks.

There is the expectation that organisations will act with integrity and be transparent and accountable in relation to their safeguarding policies and reporting and that all staff, participants and other individuals associated with the NIHR funded project and the contracted organisation shall be treated equally and with respect, irrespective of race, gender, religion/or none, sexual orientation or disability.

Who is this guidance for?

This guidance applies to everyone involved in the management and delivery of NIHR funded research activities as defined within the NIHR people framework.  


Those responsible for ensuring safeguarding principles and standards are embedded throughout the research design and delivery process include:

  • Heads of Research Institutions
  • Designated Safeguarding Officers / Research Ethics Committee Members
  • Research Managers and Administrators
  • Human Resources, Finance and Legal team
  • Principal Investigators
  • Individual researchers including research assistance, data collectors, translators, post graduate students, staff members contracted on a casual or temporary basis
  • Advisory Board members
  • Research participants
  • Community members or stakeholders (not Research participants)

Research Organisations and Institutions

Organisations are expected to develop and adopt a safeguarding policy, and should take into consideration the following safeguarding areas:

  • Organisational approach, practice and culture which ensures a safe environment for all people that the organisation engages with
  • Specific safeguarding roles and responsibilities within the organisation
  • Clear process for reporting, investigating and resolving safeguarding incidents
  • Senior management and Board safeguarding responsibilities
  • Consideration of the specific safeguarding issues which may arise within a particular context (e.g. LMIC contexts).

Organisations should also ensure that other relevant policies and organisational resources are linked to the Safeguarding Policy:

  • Code of Conduct
  • Whistleblowing policy and other reporting mechanisms (for example within LMIC community settings)
  • Human Resource / Recruitment and vetting policy
  • Ethics, Research Integrity and misconduct policies
  • Risk Register
  • Designated Safeguarding Officer

Where not in place, organisations will be given time to develop and implement their safeguarding policies, in agreement with NIHR.

NIHR’s role in ensuring compliance

Strengthened safeguarding clauses were first introduced in research contracts and agreements relating to ODA funding, and have been included in all new standard NIHR contracts since April 2021. There are a number of activities embedded within NIHR’s contract management systems which assure the monitoring of safeguarding policies, reported incidents and the management of cases.  These may include:

  • Due diligence review undertaken prior to contract confirmation
  • Background checks prior to contract confirmation
  • Review and assessment of project risk registers
  • Regular monitoring process as per contract (e.g. Quarterly as per ODA contract)
  • Assurance Visits
  • Audit checks
  • Annual Funding Reviews.

For domestic contracts, compliance will be ensured mainly through Annual Funding Review exercises, though NIHR may also request confirmation and evidence of appropriate safeguarding policies throughout the contract delivery period.

Contracted organisations are also required to report any safeguarding complaints or concerns raised immediately to NIHR using the Incident Reporting Form.

Each reported case will be monitored, as required, or investigated by NIHR.  As per the NIHR contract terms and conditions, appropriate action will be undertaken depending on the outcome.  Action taken may include:

  • Consideration of any breaches of contract in the assessment of future proposals
  • Request for refund of part or all prior payments
  • Suspension of payments pending investigation
  • Termination of contract.

Reporting and resolving allegations

Contracted organisations are required to report all credible safeguarding allegations to NIHR. They are expected to have clear guidance for reporting incidents within the organisation, and / or in relation to the organisation’s work with other partners and sub-contractors throughout the delivery chain.  The information should be made available to all concerned, and set out clearly in the Safeguarding Policy, and through relevant policies including the organisation’s Code of Conduct, Whistleblowing Policy and Employment Handbook. 

In line with best practice, the process for reporting and resolving safeguarding allegations should be developed with the following considerations:

  • Ease of use, safety, accessibility, context-sensitivity, and culturally appropriate.  Consideration should be given to the use of Community Feedback Reporting Mechanisms, where affected individuals and communities can report incidents, which are coordinated to ensure consistency in response efforts.  For more information, see the UNHCR advice on setting up an effective feedback mechanism.
  • Clearly set out mechanism for investigating and resolving reported incidents, with a step-by-step process for all complainants and officers to follow, timeframes, and steps for how decisions will be reached, and options for any further action.
  • Designated safeguarding staff roles responsible for investigating and resolving incidents
  • Provision of support for individuals who may require counselling and professional help resulting from any abuse and harm.
  • The role of external agencies and /or the Police are required
  • Alternative reporting routes, where for example a direct line manager or senior manager may be involved
  • Reporting should be anonymous where deemed necessary
  • NIHR should be immediately informed of any reported complaints or concerns regarding possible safeguarding breaches by employees or any other persons engaged in delivery of funded contracts, or by those in senior or prominent positions within the contracted organisation, using the Incident Reporting Form.

Governance and accountability

Governance and accountability structures should be in place within organisations and used to prevent and respond to safeguarding incidents, and drive up organisational standards.

In line with current best practice contracted organisations should ensure that the following are in place:

  • Board level engagement / including a designated representative to ensure Board oversight. Safeguarding should be included in the agenda for Board meetings as a standing item, for regular updates, reporting and approval of any policy revisions. 
  • Designated (trained) Safeguarding Officers within research organisations, responsible for coordinating and supporting staff member and downstream partner organisations
  • An assessment of Safeguarding Risks in relation to research activities, mitigating actions, and responsible staff members within the Risk Register
  • Clear policies and guidance for the maintenance of safeguarding plans and records
  • Robust processes and procedures to ensure the confidentiality of safeguarding records

The above areas will be checked by NIHR during due diligence reviews, annual funding reviews and routine assurance visits.

Identification, prevention and mitigation of risks

Risk management processes should prioritise the prevention of and response to safeguarding incidents. Organisations will be expected to maintain organisational and project-specific risk registers.

  • It is recommended that the organisational risk register includes a process for the collection, registration and resolution of any risks, as well as mitigation actions.
  • The register should be updated regularly.  If there are several projects under implementation, there should be a risk register for each project and all registers should identify and address safeguarding risks.

Human resources

Organisations’ HR policies should prioritise the prevention of and response to safeguarding incidents. It is recommended that Organisations should consider potential risks during the recruitment process, including:

  • Considering and evidencing the level of safeguarding risks for roles for each employee throughout the delivery chain, for example in Risk Register.
  • Undertaking background checks, and requesting adequate references for candidates to assess their suitability to work with vulnerable adults and children (if relevant).
  • Ensuring accountability for staff when necessary, and include steps leading to dismissal, suspension and other administrative measures.

Training and support

In line with best practice, the induction of new employees should include training on organisational standards, safeguarding, codes of conduct, whistleblowing and reporting incidents. There should also be regular training, refresher courses for management and all staff members to promote a safe, confident and mutually respectful work environment. Designated Safeguarding Officers / Board representatives should receive appropriate professional training.

Safeguarding should be embedded within programme development and start up meetings with downstream partners. Tools and materials should be shared between organisations, partners, and stakeholders in relation to safeguarding.

Some sources for safeguarding training and online training material are:

Review and learning

Organisations should have a process for reviewing reported safeguarding incidents, periodically. Any lessons learned from previous periods should be used to modify or amend processes. There should also be periodic consultation and input from partners and research participants or communities.

Further information

Glossary of terms used

Sexual exploitation means any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or  trust, for sexual purposes and includes but is not limited to profiting monetarily, socially, or politically from sexual exploitation of another.

Sexual abuse means the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions and includes but is not limited to all sexual activity with someone under the age of 18, regardless of local age of majority or consent.

Sexual harassment means any unwelcome sexual advances (including but not limited to sexual advances made without touching) and includes but is not limited to requests for sexual favours, or other verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, which may create a hostile or offensive environment.

Transactional sex includes but is not limited to, the exchange of money, employment, goods, or services for sex and such reference to sex shall include sexual favours or any form of humiliating, degrading or exploitative behaviours.