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PHIRST Specification Document 2024

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Published: 14 May 2024

Version: 1.0

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We invite local government organisations in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland to submit an expression of interest to the NIHR Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) scheme.

Submitting an expression of interest means putting forward for evaluation an existing intervention that has the potential to impact on health. If the intervention is selected, a fully-funded PHIRST academic team would work in partnership with you to produce a robust and timely evaluation.

The closing date for this funding opportunity is 24 September 2024, 1pm.

Key information

The purpose of this call is to find and select local government interventions that have the potential to impact on health and which are in need of robust evaluation.

This opportunity is likely to be highly competitive. When this call closes, NIHR will prioritise for evaluation those local government interventions:

  • that are likely to have important impacts on population health and health inequalities
  • that have the potential to be widely generalisable
  • for which there is an identified need
  • that are readily evaluable
  • for which funding has been identified and preferably secured
  • for which evaluative research will provide timely evidence to inform practice or policy in local government

Interventions selected for evaluation will be allocated to a PHIRST team, who are ready to work with local government colleagues to co-produce the evaluation.

The evaluation (but not the intervention itself) will be fully-funded through the PHIRST scheme. If your intervention is selected for evaluation, your assigned PHIRST team will still need to ensure that your intervention is evaluable before work can proceed.

The aim of the PHIRST scheme

The aim of the PHIRST scheme is to enable evaluative research to take place into real-world interventions. Evaluations will be conducted with academic rigour, but in timescales that are relevant to local government. In this way, the PHIRST scheme seeks to grow the evidence base for local government decision-making.

We are particularly interested in population-level, non-clinical, public health transdisciplinary interventions that impact upon the health of the public and on health inequalities.

Interventions suitable for evaluation through PHIRST can include interventions commissioned or undertaken through any function of, and by any tier of, local government.

Examples of evaluations conducted through the PHIRST scheme can be found on the PHIRST website.

Background

The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is the largest funder of health and care research in the UK. It is a strategic aim of the NIHR to build capacity in preventive and public health research, and to make the UK a world leader in this area. The PHIRST scheme is key to these ambitions, and forms part of NIHR’s Public Health Research (PHR) Programme. There is a dedicated website for the PHIRST scheme.

Co-producing research with practitioners, decision makers, and the public, will help to ensure that the research we fund answers the most important questions facing services at local and national levels. Local government organisations play a vital role in their local communities, with an ability to influence public health, but have not always been able to benefit from the research and evaluation support they might have wanted.

Local government organisations are delivering important and often innovative interventions. The PHIRST scheme seeks to provide an opportunity to learn from these interventions, and, in doing so, generate an evidence base on which future local government decision making can be based. You can read more in this short blog from 2020 about the background to the PHIRST scheme. PHIRST evaluations will therefore help to inform the commissioning and implementation of local government activity as it relates to health – leading to demonstrable health benefits and reductions in health inequalities.

This call complements the scope and work of the NIHR School for Public Health Research, Public Health Practice Evaluation Scheme (PHPES). The PHIRST scheme also complements Health Determinants Research Collaborations (HDRCs), an NIHR initiative that aims to enable local government to become more research-active.

Eligibility and remit

To be eligible for evaluation through PHIRST, interventions need to involve local government organisations in England, Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland. Any level of local government is suitable – this includes local authorities and local councils that operate at regional, county, district, borough, unitary, town, parish, or any other, level.

PHIRST is designed to evaluate local government interventions that are currently being delivered or are starting. Interventions submitted would most likely be prioritised in November 2024 and therefore the intervention ideally needs to be active and ongoing as of that date.

For this round, the PHIRST scheme is particularly interested in receiving expressions of interest for interventions related to the following priority topics and themes:

  • housing
  • commercial determinants of health
  • sustainability/climate
  • ultra-processed foods
  • violence reduction
  • the reach of interventions into under-served communities
  • interventions that have involvement from across local government departments

For avoidance of doubt, expressions of interest are welcomed for interventions focused on any topic or theme (where there is a need for the intervention to be evaluated), and need not be limited to those specified above.

Examples of current and previous evaluations are available on the PHIRST website.

The primary purpose of the intervention submitted need not necessarily be to generate health or public health impacts. Any intervention that is expected to have an impact (positive or negative) on the health of the local population would be within scope. For example, interventions relating to road infrastructure or urban planning may be suitable for evaluation. The intervention should be in need of research to strengthen its evidence base as it relates to health. The focus of the PHIRST evaluation would be on the intervention’s impact on health.

Social care interventions are not in remit for PHIRST evaluations.

The scale of interventions that can be evaluated through PHIRST varies. Substantial but focused interventions with well-defined aims tend to be most suitable for evaluation through PHIRST. In contrast, large abstract programmes of work with multiple strands tend to be less suitable for this scheme, unless the intervention is focused on one (or a small number of) discrete elements - which applicants are advised to specify in their expression of interest.

The PHIRST scheme is not designed to support initial development or co-production of interventions themselves – but rather to facilitate their evaluation.

Interventions may be run in partnership with other organisations (for example with the third sector, or other public sector). Interventions can relate to one local government organisation or be delivered across more than one organisation. However, we ask that any expressions of interest submitted on behalf of more than one local government organisation have a clear lead organisation.

It is acknowledged that non-clinical (non-NHS) interventions impacting population health are commissioned and delivered by differing bodies within the devolved administrations of the UK. If you are unsure regarding eligibility, please contact phirst@nihr.ac.uk, providing a brief description of the intervention.

Further information

Local government teams submitting an expression of interest must be willing to commit some time and human resource to working in partnership with the PHIRST team to co-produce the evaluation. Ensuring that time can be dedicated to discussions and workshops, and enabling access to relevant local government colleagues – and wider stakeholders – is essential to the success of the research and its ability to meet the needs of all groups.

There is an expectation that the status of a PHIRST evaluation being in progress is open knowledge, in keeping with the NIHR ethos of transparency in the conduct and reporting of research. One advantage of this approach is that UK local government teams, and the academic community, have an awareness that research on a particular topic is ongoing and that findings will be forthcoming.

Should local government teams have concerns about this requirement, for example wishing to keep aspects of an evaluation anonymous, confidential, embargoed, or otherwise undisclosed, any issues should be flagged at the point of submitting an expression of interest. There is no guarantee that exceptions can be made – for reasons of both practice and principle, the expectation is that PHIRST evaluations are conducted openly. All research findings must ultimately be reported transparently.

Local government teams whose interventions are not prioritised are welcome to submit again in future rounds. Similarly, interventions that do not pass an evaluability assessment can be resubmitted in the future.

What is the benefit to my local government organisation?

If your intervention is selected, an NIHR PHIRST team will be allocated to work with you. On the assumption that the evaluability assessment confirms an evaluation can proceed, your local government team will receive expert academic input from the PHIRST team to co-create and undertake a robust evaluation of the intervention.

The PHIRST scheme will fund all evaluation costs by virtue of the fact that the PHIRST teams are fully-funded by NIHR. The cost of delivering the intervention is not covered by PHIRST.

Outputs of PHIRST projects are tailored to the needs of the local government team. For example, the primary output of a PHIRST evaluation might be a summary briefing document that can be used to inform subsequent commissioning decisions. The PHIRST team will also aim to produce at least one academic output that reports the evaluation findings in a peer-reviewed journal.

It is hoped that joint working and collaboration between local government and PHIRST teams will result in mutual sharing of knowledge, learning and development of new skills, and joint academic and service-oriented publications. But most importantly, it is intended that evaluation findings will inform future decision making across local government.

How to submit an expression of interest

Expressions of interest (EoIs) for this call should be completed in REALMS (REsearch Awards Lifecycle Management System) before the call closes at 1pm, 24 September 2024. If you have not done so previously, please register on REALMS in good time prior to the closing date. If you encounter issues with registering on REALMS, please contact realms@nihr.ac.uk.

Please ensure that your organisation appears on the REALMS system in advance of completing the EoI form. If it does not show, please contact realms@nihr.ac.uk  and we will arrange for it to be added.

The deadline for receiving EoIs for this round is 1pm, 24 September 2024. To avoid last-minute issues, we advise submitting EoIs in good time prior to the deadline.

EoIs need to have sign-off from the relevant local senior decision-maker or accountable officer. For example, in England this would be the local Director of Public Health for a local authority, and in devolved administrations the Chief Executive Officer of the relevant local government organisation, as applicable.

Submitting an EoI is not intended to be an onerous task for local government teams. The form is designed to capture only essential information to enable informed decisions to be made about which interventions to prioritise. The EoI form should take relatively little time to complete.

Please aim to provide succinct, concrete information when completing the form, describing your intervention clearly, and responding directly to each of the questions.

The EoI form will ask for the following information:

  1. name of the local government organisation
  2. contact details of the Lead officer for the intervention
  3. contact details of the Lead officer for the EoI, along with a second point of contact
  4. contact details of the Supporting Director of Public Health or equivalent
  5. name of the intervention
  6. description of the intervention. We recommend that the first one or two sentences of the description of the intervention clearly summarise what the intervention is (in simple terms), and what it aims to achieve. Teams should also include a brief background paragraph outlining the rationale and the issue that the intervention is addressing.
  7. geographical location(s) of the intervention
  8. start date and end date of the intervention
  9. how the intervention is funded, the amount of funding allocated, and the duration for which funding has been secured
  10. anticipated impacts on population health, on health inequalities, and any wider impacts
  11. what, if any, public involvement and engagement work has taken place related to the intervention, or whether any is planned
  12. the stakeholders connected to the intervention and potential evaluation, and whether they consent to being involved in an evaluation
  13. relevant weblinks
  14. any further key information of which the PHIRST scheme should be aware

What happens after submitting an expression of interest and call closure?

Each EoI is subject to a remit and competitiveness check, and successfully shortlisted EoIs will then be taken forward to be reviewed and prioritised by representatives of the Prioritisation Committee of the NIHR’s Public Health Research Programme. A non-competitive EoI is one that does not convey the nature of the intervention and the case for an evaluation clearly and succinctly, or is missing key information, and is therefore not of a sufficiently high standard to be taken forward in comparison with other EoIs received. To be taken forward, EoIs must also be in remit for the PHIRST scheme (see above, in particular the section ‘Eligibility and remit’).

We will aim to communicate decisions on which EoIs have been prioritised for adoption into the PHIRST scheme by the end of November 2024.

Each PHIRST team has an existing portfolio of projects. Start and end dates for interventions will therefore be considered as part of the prioritisation process, and evaluation start times will also need to be tailored to available PHIRST team capacity.

It is important that the PHIRST scheme maintains a balanced portfolio of research in relation to both geographical spread across the UK and range of health topics. These factors are therefore taken into consideration when making final decisions about which interventions to select, in addition to the criteria specified at the top of this page under ‘Key information’. Please note that local government organisations that have an intervention that has been prioritised or is currently being evaluated through PHIRST are unlikely to be selected for a second time, unless there are exceptional circumstances, or the current evaluation is nearing completion.

Once interventions have been selected and assigned a PHIRST team, we will put local government teams in direct contact with the PHIRST team. Local government teams are expected to engage in an initial discussion with the PHIRST team within two weeks of allocation. This assists in confirming intervention timings, funding, and delivery, should these have evolved since the EoI was submitted.

These initial discussions will form part of the evaluability assessment process that must take place, in partnership between the PHIRST team and local government team, before an evaluation can proceed.

The purpose of the evaluability assessment is to ensure, for example, that:

  • the intervention has an adequate degree of clarity in its delivery activities, and preferably in its aims
  • the intervention is currently running (or is starting) and will continue to run for a length of time that means it can be meaningfully evaluated
  • there exist research questions that can be articulated and that are answerable
  • qualitative or quantitative data are available or can be generated

It is possible that if an intervention is found to be non-evaluable in its existing format, or if a high degree of evidence related to the intervention already exists, the evaluation may not be able to proceed. To date, most evaluability assessments undertaken have determined that evaluations can proceed, but this is not guaranteed.

The evaluability assessment process also helps in developing a protocol for the evaluation. PHIRST evaluations are typically conducted over a timeframe of 12 to 18 months, and will likely involve mixed-methods approaches.

In order for an evaluation to take place, it will often be necessary for local government teams to share data relating to an intervention with their allocated PHIRST team. If a data-sharing agreement might be required, it would be worthwhile considering this at an early stage. For example, you could identify in advance the person in your organisation who would be able to swiftly take this forward, should your intervention be selected for evaluation through PHIRST.