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PHIRST Specification Document


Published: 31 October 2023

Version: 1.0 October 2023

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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 call is 06 February 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 and of this call

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.


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 Programme. The PHIRST scheme now has a dedicated website.

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. 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 planned for the near future. Interventions submitted would most likely be prioritised in February/March 2024 and therefore the intervention ideally needs to be active and ongoing as of that date.

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. Examples of current and previous evaluations can be viewed on the PHIRST website.

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.

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, 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.

If an intervention is prioritised for evaluation following closure of this call, the assigned PHIRST team will still need to ensure that the intervention is suitable for evaluation, before work can proceed. The PHIRST team will therefore conduct an evaluability assessment in partnership with the local government team. This involves discussions and fact-finding.

The purpose of the evaluability assessment process 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 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.

The aim of the evaluability assessment is to ensure that a robust evaluation will be possible, and if this determination is positive, then the evaluation is given the ‘green light’ to proceed. The evaluability assessment process also helps in developing a protocol for the evaluation. To date, most evaluability assessments undertaken have determined that evaluations can proceed, but this is not guaranteed and occasionally a decision has to be made by the PHIRST team not to proceed with an evaluation.

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 on 06 February 2024, 1pm. If you have not done so previously, please register on REALMS in good time prior to the call close date. If you encounter issues with registering on REALMS, please contact

The deadline for receiving EoIs for this round is 06 February 2024 at 1pm. To avoid last-minute issues, we advise submitting EoIs in good time prior to the deadline.

Please ensure that your organisation appears on the REALMS system in advance of completing the EoI form. Please contact us if your organisation is not listed, and we will arrange for it to be added.

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.

The EoI form will ask for the following information:

  • Name of the local government organisation
  • Contact details of the:
    • Lead officer for the intervention
    • Lead officer for the EoI, along with a second point of contact
    • Supporting Director of Public Health or equivalent
  • Name of the intervention
  • Description of the intervention, including background, rationale, and key aims
  • Geographical location(s) of the intervention
  • Start date and end date of the intervention
  • How the intervention is funded, the amount of funding allocated, and the duration for which funding has been secured
  • Anticipated impacts on population health, on health inequalities, and any wider impacts
  • What, if any, public involvement and engagement work has taken place related to the intervention, or whether any is planned
  • The stakeholders connected to the intervention and potential evaluation, and whether they consent to being involved in an evaluation
  • Relevant weblinks
  • Any further key information of which the PHIRST scheme should be aware.

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

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.

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

EoIs will be reviewed and prioritised by representatives from the Prioritisation Committee of the NIHR’s Public Health Research Programme. We will aim to communicate a decision by the end of March 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 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 reviewing timings, funding, and delivery of interventions, should these have evolved since the expression of interest was submitted. These initial discussions will form part of the evaluability assessment process.

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.