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Policy Research Programme Call on Young People and Drug Misuse - Research Specification



Research call on Young People and Drug Misuse


Timetable and Budget

  • Deadline for stage 1 applications: 26 January 2021
  • Notification of outcome of stage 1 applications: Late March 2021
  • Deadline for stage 2 application: 04 May 2021
  • Notification of outcome of stage 2 applications: August 2021
  • Award of contract: September 2021 (subject to pre-contract negotiations)
  • Budget (if available): £300,000 per project



1. The Department of Health and Social Care invites proposals (Stage 1, see Commissioning Process section) for research to help understand why recent prevalence data and other indicators suggest drug use is rising while there is evidence that access to young people’s drug and alcohol treatment services is contracting. Understanding this is of substantial policy interest because it will inform us as to whether targeted prevention or treatment interventions could be adapted to ensure that young people access the support they require.

2. This is a significant opportunity to inform policy and implementation in an area of high importance. Research on this area will inform engagement strategies for reaching those who could benefit from accessing services but who are not currently doing so. It would also inform the design and implementation of targeted interventions to prevent risky substance use.

3. Ideally we are looking for a single project which will address all the research questions set out below but we are open to receiving applications which focus on a subset of the questions. We might wish to commission more than one study.



4. There are signs that the proportion of young people using drugs is increasing. The national survey of drug use among school children in England shows a large and statistically significant increase in drug use among 11 to 15-year olds compared to 2014[1]. The use of Class A drugs among 16 to 24-year olds has also increased in recent years and is currently 8.7%[2]. These trends are a substantial cause for concern given the age and maturity of these young people and that drug use by young people raises the risk of poorer immediate and long-term outcomes (including health outcomes and broader outcomes such as educational attainment, family/peer relationships, offending).

5. Some related indicators are also going in the wrong direction. Over 10 thousand secondary school pupils were excluded from school for either a fixed term or permanently in 2017-18 for alcohol and drug issues, which is a 50% increase since 2012/13. Meanwhile, those presenting to young people’s substance misuse treatment are increasingly reported as having multiple vulnerabilities, including criminal exploitation which young people more generally are understood to be increasingly falling victim to.

6. Despite increasing prevalence of drug use among young people, the numbers in young people’s substance misuse treatment have continued to fall. There were 14,485 young people in contact with alcohol and drug services between April 2018 and March 2019. This is a 7% reduction on the number the previous year (15,583) and a 40% reduction on the number in treatment in the year 2008 to 2009 (24,053)[3]. There are a range of possible factors contributing to this fall, including budgetary pressures, but this may indicate that there is an increasingly large underserved cohort of young people who would benefit from this sort of support.

7. While a similar rise in alcohol use has not been seen, research aimed at understating the increase in drug use will need to also consider alcohol use given that these are inter-related. Social media use is another facet of young people’s lives which makes the context in which they use drugs increasingly complex. Excessive levels of social media use (e.g. problematic social media use) have been suggested to confer a higher likelihood of substance use and sexual risk behaviours in adolescents but the interaction of these behaviours is so far not well understood by existing research.

8. It’s vital to understand the roles played by various factors in determining whether young people use or go on to have problems with drugs or alcohol to improve prevention, minimise associated harms and optimise treatment. Existing research that could help explain this increase was actively looked for as part of the evidence gathering process for the first part of Dame Carol Black’s Independent Review on Drugs and this was found to be an evidence gap.

9. This work has a direct policy interest for PHE, DHSC, DfE and the HO in reducing health inequality, youth crime/violence reduction and child mental health agendas. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it appears to be having on levels and patterns of drug and alcohol misuse, there is likely to be even greater need to support health, social care and youth justice services to identify drug and alcohol misuse, offer early help and support those who need it into specialist young people drug and alcohol treatment in the long term.


Research Priorities

10. Improved evidence is needed on why there has been an increase in the proportion of young people using drugs to help DHSC and PHE develop policy in the area. The apparent upward trend in drug use prevalence is concerning and we’re unclear on what factors are causing the increase and how different groups might be affected.

11. Drug use is very interlinked with alcohol use, risky sexual behaviour and exploitation, criminal behaviour, and social media. Drug use needs to be understood within the context of these and other factors.

12. The key age group of interest is those aged under 18. We expect that researchers would need to interview a cohort of young people and young adults from a range of backgrounds, including those with vulnerabilities, and will need to ask age appropriate questions depending on the respondent. Relevant vulnerabilities to be considered for a recruitment strategy (subject to ethics) include mental health issues, involvement with youth justice, anti-social behaviour, not attending mainstream schools or exploitation by criminal gangs, those in care and care leavers.


Research Objectives

13. The overall objective is to better understand the following:

Understanding trends

  • What factors are contributing to changing patterns and levels of drug use among young people?
  • How do factors such as resilience protect young people from harmful substance misuse?

Understanding attitudes

  • What attitudes do young people have about use of different drugs and alcohol?
  • How does substance use and attitudes to drug and alcohol use vary between subcultures?
  • Is substance use among young people causing or increasing other vulnerabilities?
  • What are the barriers preventing young people from accessing treatment services and how could these be overcome?

Understanding the association between drug and alcohol use

  • What is the relationship between overall prevalence of drug or alcohol use among young people and high-risk use?
  • How does alcohol use influence drug use and vice versa?

Understanding the role of social media

  • How is social media influencing access to drugs and substance use behaviour?
  • How is the role of social media or mobile apps in drug dealing influencing use?


Budget and Duration

14. The research is expected to be delivered within a cost of £300K over the period of one year to 18 months, commencing by Autumn 2021.

15. The duration of the research and individual projects within the contract will be no longer than is consistent with high quality studies. In assessing proposals, the Department will be seeking value for money as well as scientific excellence and, in particular, the potential for policy impact which is key.

16. Applicants are asked to address the timing and nature of deliverables, maximising staff resources and other options for interim reporting in their proposals.

17. Costings can include up to 100% full economic costing (FEC) but should exclude output VAT. Applicants are advised that value for money is one of the key criteria that peer reviewers and commissioning panel members will assess applications against.

18. All applications are expected to start within 2 months of funding being agreed, subject to pre-contract negotiations and specific requirements.



19. A research advisory group including representatives of PHE (or relevant successor agency) the National Health Service (NHS) England, NHS Improvement, appropriate practitioners and local authorities. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) will provide guidance for the research, meeting regularly over the lifetime of the research. The successful bidders for this research should be prepared to review research objectives with the advisory group, and to share emerging findings on an ongoing basis. You will be expected to:

  • provide regular feedback on progress
  • produce timely reports to the advisory group
  • produce a final report for sign off

20. Research contractors will be expected to work with nominated officials in DHSC, Public Health England (or relevant successor agency), Department for Education, Home Office, NHS England ., once the research project is due to start. Key documents including, for example, research protocols, research instruments and reports must be provided to DHSC in draft form allowing sufficient time for review.


Additional information

21. Successful tenderers would be expected to produce outputs targeted at policy makers and practitioners.

22. As we believe there is not sufficient evidence on this topic we expect that primary research will be required, particularly qualitative research. Secondary analysis of data sources such as the Millennium Cohort Study might also be appropriate. Studies should include reference to existing evidence in the area.

23. We are open to applicants suggesting other research questions as long as the research objectives in paragraph 13 are covered.


References and Key documents

  1. Independent review of drugs by Professor Dame Carol Black Part 1
  2. Drug strategy 2017
  3. Guidance, Young people commissioning support: principles and indicators
  4. Practice standards for young people with substance misuse problems (2012)
  5. Specialist substance misuse services for young people: A rapid mixed methods evidence review of current provision and main principles for commissioning
  6. Smoking drinking and drug use survey among young people
  7. Drug misuse: findings from the 2018 to 2019 CSEW
  8. Young people's substance misuse treatment statistics 2018 to 2019: report
  9. Improving young people’s health and wellbeing A framework for public health
  10. Millennium Cohort Study Age 17 Sweep



Standard Information for Applicants

1. The sections below provide standard information on different aspects of NIHR PRP funding and will contain details relevant to your application.


General Comments About Applications

2. The National Institute for Health Research Policy Research Programme (NIHR PRP) is a national programme of research dedicated to providing an evidence base for policy-making through the Department of Health and Social Care. It provides information to the Secretary of State for Health and his Ministers directly and through policy directorates in the Department of Health and Social Care and covers all aspects of the Department’s policy-making activity.

3. Applications will be considered from other UK countries (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) provided they address the priority areas in a way that is relevant to the needs of the Department of Health and Social Care (England) and meet all other selection criteria.

4. Applicants are encouraged to submit multidisciplinary applications.

5. Applicants should consider the full range of potential audiences and describe how the research findings could be disseminated most effectively to ensure that the lessons from this research impact on policy and practice.


Research Management

6.Day-to-day management of this research will be provided by the principal investigator. They and their employers should ensure that they identify, and are able to discharge effectively, their respective responsibilities under the Health Research Authority (HRA) UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research (Health Research Authority, 2018)[1], which sets out the broad principles of good research governance.

7. All successful research involving National Health Service (NHS) and social care users, carers, staff, data and/or premises must be approved by the appropriate research ethics committee (REC) or social care research ethics committee (SCREC). For further information on RECs, please visit the Health Research Authority website:[2]

8. The successful research team must adhere to the General Data Protection Regulation and the new Data Protection Act (2018)[3] and the Freedom of Information Act (2000). Effective security management, and ensuring personal information and assessment data are kept secure, will be essential. In particular:

  • The research team shall, at all times, be responsible for ensuring that data (including data in any electronic format) are stored securely. The research team shall take appropriate measures to ensure the security of such data, and guard against unauthorised access thereto, disclosure thereof, or loss or destruction while in its custody.
  • Personal data shall not be made available to anyone other than those employed directly on the project by the research team, to the extent that they need access to such information for the performance of their duties.

9. For any research involving clinical trials, the successful team will be expected to be familiar with the Medical Research Council (MRC) Framework for Evaluating Complex Interventions, and to follow the principles of the MRC Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice in Clinical Trials in proposing structures for oversight of such trials and comply with the Medicines for Human Use (Clinical Trials) Regulations 2004.

10. The Institution leading the proposal should confirm that it has the capacity and is prepared to take on sponsorship responsibilities for clinical trials undertaken as part of the programme. Where the proposal includes a proposal for multi-site clinical trial activities, the research unit should demonstrate that they have the experience of governance and management of clinical trials across multiple clinical trial sites.


Risk Management

11. Applicants should submit, as part of their proposal, a summary explaining what they believe will be the key risks to delivering their research, and what contingencies they will put in place to deal with them. Please ensure this is detailed in the Management and Governance section of the online application form.

12. A risk is defined as any factor which may delay, disrupt or prevent the full achievement of a project objective. All risks should be identified. The summary should include an assessment of each risk, together with a rating of the risks likelihood and its impact on a project objective (using a high, medium or low classification for both). The risk assessment should also identify appropriate actions that would reduce or eliminate each risk, or its impact.

13. Typical areas of risk for an evaluation study might include ethical approval, site variation in data gathering, staffing, resource constraints, technical constraints, data access and quality, timing, management and operational issues; however, please note this is not an exhaustive list.


Patient and Public Involvement (PPI)

14. The NIHR Policy Research Programme expects the active involvement of patients and the public (e.g. service users and carers) in the research that it supports, where appropriate. However, the nature and extent of patient and public involvement (PPI) is likely to vary depending on the context of the study. Applicants should describe how the issue of PPI will be addressed throughout the research process. For example, this could include patient and public involvement in refining research questions, designing research instruments, advising on approaches to recruitment, assisting in the collection and analysis of data, participation or chairing advisory and steering groups, and in the dissemination of research findings.

15. Applicants are required to detail what active involvement is planned, how it will benefit the research and the rationale for their approach. PPI needs to be undertaken in a manner that acknowledges that some people may need additional support, or to acquire new knowledge or skills to enable them to become involved effectively (see INVOLVE publications for guides for researchers). Applicants should therefore provide information on arrangements for training and support. In addition, applicants should note that a budget line for the costs of PPI is included in the finance form. Where no PPI is proposed, a rationale for this decision must be given.

16. For further information and guidance about PPI, please visit the INVOLVE website:


Outputs and Reporting Arrangements

17. The research team will be expected to provide regular progress reports over the lifetime of the research and will be provided with a progress report template to complete at regular intervals. In addition to describing progress, these reports will allow researchers to indicate any significant changes to the agreed protocol, as well as setting down milestones for the next reporting period, giving an update on PPI and any publications or other outputs. Information on emergent findings that can feed more immediately into policy development will be encouraged and should be made available as appropriate.

18. A final report on the research, with an accessible executive summary, will be required within one month following completion of the research. The report will be peer reviewed and may be circulated among relevant stakeholders within the Department of Health and Social Care and its partners. Once the study is completed, a summary of the final report will be placed in the public domain, on the Policy Research Programme web pages found at: This is where the outputs resulting from expenditure of public funds are made available for public scrutiny so it is important that the summary of your final report is easily accessible to the lay reader.

19. Research contractors are obliged to give at least 28 days notice before submission of any publication arising from research funded by the NIHR Policy Research Programme. In this instance, ‘publication’ concerns any presentation, paper, press release, report or other output for public dissemination arising from a research project funded by the PRP. Research contractors remain under an obligation to provide notice even after the contract has ended. Publication of PRP-commissioned research is subject to prior consent of the Secretary of State, which will not be withheld unreasonably and cannot be withheld for more than three months from the time the publication is submitted.



20. Applicants should describe how the research findings could be disseminated most effectively, ensuring that results of this research impact on policy and practice in the NHS, DHSC, and/or in social care.

21. Publication of scientifically robust research results is encouraged. This could include plans to submit papers to peer reviewed journals, national and regional conferences aimed at service providers, professional bodies and professional leaders. It might also include distribution of executive summaries and newsletters. Less traditional dissemination routes are also welcomed for consideration.



22. In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety to the general public. Further information on the transparency agenda is at:

23. If you wish to view the standard terms and conditions of the NIHR Policy Research Programme contract, please go to:


Application Process

24. To access the research specification and application form, please visit the NIHR Policy Research Programme Central Commissioning Facility (NIHR PRP CCF) website at or visit

25. The NIHR CCF runs an online application process and all applications must be submitted electronically. No applications will be accepted that are submitted by any means other than the online process. Deadlines for the submission of outline and full research applications occur at 1.00 pm on the day indicated and no applications can be accepted after this deadline.

26. We strongly recommend that you submit your application on the day before. Once the 1.00 pm deadline passes, the system shuts down automatically and CCF Programme Managers are unable to re-open it. If you are experiencing any technical difficulties submitting your application, please contact the CCF on 0208 843 8073 in good time, before 1.00 pm on a closing date.

27. Applicants are expected, before submitting applications, to have discussed their applications with their own and any other body whose cooperation will be required in conducting the research.

28. In order for your full application to be validated and submitted you are required to gain electronic approval from the relevant authorities before the application deadline. The Declarations page must be approved:

  1. by the Lead Applicant to confirm that the content of the application is complete and correct.
  2. by an administrative or finance officer for the contracting (host) institution to confirm that the financial details of the application are correct and that the host institution agrees to administer the award if made.
  3. by a Head of Department or Senior Manager to confirm that they have read the application and that, if funded, the work will be accommodated and administered in the named institution and that the applicants may undertake the work.

29. Until this is completed the lead applicant is unable to validate and submit the application.


Commissioning Process

30. The standard NIHR PRP commissioning cycle includes the following steps:


31. In the standard 2 Stages’ Commissioning, Stage 1 applications will be short-listed by a Committee (previously Commissioning Panel). Applications too remote from the issues set out in the research specification, or applications that have clearly inadequate presentation or methods may be rejected at this stage.

32. Applications that are successfully short-listed by the Committee will proceed to Stage 2 of the application process and will be invited to submit a Stage 2 full application for consideration.

33. All full applications submitted to NIHR PRP will be peer-reviewed by both stakeholder and independent academic referees. Wherever time permits, applicants will be given one week to respond to the peer reviewers’ comments.

34. Full applications, peer reviewers’ comments and any responses to those comments will then be considered by the Committee which is comprised of independent experts (possibly with observers from other government departments and executive agencies), who will advise the NIHR on which applications are most suited to receive funding. The Committee will be informed by the reviewers’ comments and any responses made to these comments by the researchers. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of the Committee to make any funding recommendations to the Department of Health and Social Care.


Selection criteria

35. Committee members are directed to consider applications against the criteria stated in this research specification as well as selection criteria detailed below:

  • RELEVANCE of the proposed research to the research specification:
  1. How relevant is the proposal in relation to the research specification? Does it demonstrate awareness of and addresses recognised policy priorities? How it could support potential policy customers?
  2. Does the application demonstrate an awareness and understanding of previous relevant research or developments in this area?
  • QUALITY of the research design:
  1. How appropriate is the research design in relation to the proposal's stated objectives?
  2. To what extent is the proposed design and methodology for all elements of the research well defined, appropriate, valid and feasible within the timeframe and resources requested?
  3. To what extent does the research show originality and innovation?
  4. To what extent does the proposed work add to or complement initiatives at a national (or international) level?
  • QUALITY of the work plan and proposed management arrangements:
  1. How appropriate are the work plan and project management arrangements? Have clear milestones/deliverables been proposed? How likely is it that these will be met within the specified timeframe?
  2. Have the applicants identified key risks to delivery? Have these been adequately addressed?
  3. Does the proposal demonstrate readiness, intended as the ability to start quickly following funding decision?
  • STRENGTH of the research team:
  1. Are the roles of the team members clearly described?
  2. Does the Principal Investigator appear suitably qualified and experienced to lead the proposed work? If the PI is a junior researcher, is there adequate senior support in the wider team?
  3. Are the skills and expertise available in the team adequate to achieve the stated objectives?
  • IMPACT of the proposed work:
  1. Does the proposal offer demonstrable benefits to policy makers? Does it offer an understanding of and a clear trajectory for how benefits might be achieved?
  2. Are the necessary clinical, academic, organisational links needed to support the research in place? Are dissemination and policy engagement plans clearly described and credible?
  • VALUE for money (justification of the proposed costs):
  1. Does the proposal sufficiently justify the resources required to deliver the proposed work?
  2. Do the proposed costs demonstrate value for money?
  3. Is the time committed by the applicants realistic to ensure delivery?
  • INVOLVEMENT of patients and the public:
  1. Is the involvement of the public and possibly the wider community clearly stated within the proposed work? Is there evidence that the public has been involved at every stage of the proposed work from development through to dissemination?
  2. Is the patient and public involvement appropriately costed?



36. General enquiries regarding the application and commissioning process can be directed to the PRP CCF Help Desk by telephone at 020 8843 8073 or by email to




[1] Available from URL: