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Policy Research Programme - Invitation to Tender National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Policy Research Units

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Published: 08 July 2022

Version: 1.0 July 2022

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Deadline for stage 1 applications: 1pm on Tuesday 11 October 2022

Introduction

The Government is committed to enhancing the contribution of research and evaluation to health and social care. The Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme (PRP) invites applications for Policy Research Units (PRUs). The purpose of the units is to meet the longer-term policy research needs of the Department, and its Arm’s Length Bodies (ALBs), as well as to secure capacity for work to be undertaken at short notice, rapid synthesis of evidence and academic advice. The Science, Research and Evidence Directorate (SRE) at DHSC provides liaison between the PRUs, policy teams and analysts to enable policy makers to draw on high quality evidence.

Background

NIHR’s work is directed by the Chief Scientific Adviser at DHSC and by the Director and Senior Management Team of DHSC's SRE Directorate. DHSC contracts directly with several organisations that host Coordinating Centres that are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the NIHR. A Coordinating Centre based in Twickenham is responsible for the PRP and it works closely with the SRE Directorate.

The PRP funds high quality and cost-effective research to deliver relevant, timely and accessible evidence to inform policy decisions across the health, care, and public health systems. The PRP supports the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Ministers, and officials in the Department and its ALBs. The term PRU is used to mean organisations or consortia, typically based in universities, where the PRP funds a major programme of longer-term and responsive policy related research. PRUs are generally contracted for around five years. Such units/consortia are normally in receipt of other funding.

Rationale for Policy Research Units

Good policy depends on a sound evidence base, including external thinking from academics. Policy makers find it particularly challenging to draw on academia when forming policy against tight deadlines or in politically charged areas. The DHSC has tackled this by establishing PRUs. The PRU system has been running successfully since the 1970s, offering the Department direct access to top academics in their field. The units have been instrumental in shaping a range of policies.

During 2017-18, the NIHR, on behalf of DHSC, commissioned a refreshed set of PRUs that delivered a step change in the relationship between policy makers and academics to capitalise on the key features of the units that make them so valued by policy makers:

  • Providing access to high quality academics that are at the top of their field.
  • Flexibility to respond quickly when new priorities emerge.
  • An ability to develop trusting relationships to work on politically sensitive areas.

PRUs provide a critical mass of experts with the capacity to:

  • Provide a stable, long-term research resource in priority areas for health and social care policy, developing expertise and research capacity in the longer term.
  • Undertake rapid response work to meet the needs of policy makers as priorities and policy evolves and develops. Rapid in this sense applies to the time in which the evidence is commissioned and underway. It can generate outcomes in the short, medium, or long-term but aims to provide evidence on issues and challenges which arise throughout the lifetime of the unit, in addition to the planned, core work programme.
  • Provide advice to policy makers and analysts on the state of the evidence and options for policy development.
  • Act as a core of experts familiar with how the DHSC and ALBs operate, able to work with analysts and policy makers, and provide timely reports and other accessible outputs which can be disseminated widely along lay stakeholders and link to policy outcomes and recommendations.

Beginning in January 2019, the PRP successfully established an expanded set of units and transformed the culture of the PRU model to encourage greater collaboration between units; and enabled policy makers and analysts to be more actively engaged in the work of the units.
The PRP currently funds 15 PRUs covering a range of policy areas which are grouped into four broad categories:

System DirectedSpecialism Specific
Adult Social Care
Health and Social Care Systems and Commissioning
Quality, Safety and Outcomes of Health and Social Care
Health and Social Care Workforce
Public Health
Policy Innovation and Evaluation
Economics of Health Systems and Interface with Social Care
Economic Methods of Evaluation of Health and Social Care Interventions
Behavioural Science
Life CourseCondition Specific
Maternal and Neonatal Health and Care
Children and Families
Older People and Frailty
Cancer Awareness, Screening and Early Diagnosis
Obesity
Mental Health


The Requirement

Since the current set of units began there have been several significant policy developments, including:

  • A renewed emphasis on the importance of policy evaluation with the creation of the joint Cabinet Office and Her Majesty’s Treasury’s Evaluation Task Force (ETF) following the 2020 Spending Review. The role of the ETF is to ensure robust evidence on the effectiveness of policies and programmes sits at the heart of government spending decisions. The DHSC has also published an Evaluation Strategy.
  • An increased remit and responsibility for Adult Social Care which was reflected in the change in the Department’s name to DHSC in 2018 and change in the name of the NIHR to the National Institute for Health and Care Research in April 2022. This includes the announcement of charging and social care reform in the 2021 White Paper ‘People at the Heart of Care’.
  • Responding to the Covid19 pandemic and the recovery agenda. This shone a light on health disparities, particularly in relation to deprivation, ethnicity and geography.
  • The 2019 Prevention Green Paper and the transition, in 2021, of Public Health England (PHE) into the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for Health Promotion and Health Disparities (OHID) in DHSC.
  • The February 2022 Health and Social Care Integration White Paper.
  • The 2022 Health and Care Act which introduced two-part statutory integrated care systems, (ICSs) comprised of an integrated care board (ICB), responsible for NHS strategic planning and allocation decisions, and an integrated care partnership (ICP), responsible for bringing together a wider set of system partners to develop a plan to address the broader health, public health, and social care needs of the local population.

Contracts for the current units end in December 2023 and the NIHR wishes to continue to commit investment in PRUs during the years 2024-2028 to support the Department’s five strategic priorities, as listed in the Department of Health and Social Care's About Us page:

  • Protect the public’s health through the health and social care system’s response to COVID-19.
  • Improve healthcare outcomes by providing high-quality and sustainable care at the right time in the right place and by improving infrastructure and transforming technology.
  • Improve healthcare outcomes through a well-supported workforce.
  • Improve, protect and level up the nation’s health, including through reducing health disparities.
  • Improve social care outcomes through an affordable, high quality and sustainable adult social care system.

To address DHSC’s anticipated future evidence requirements we would once again like to expand the number of PRUs contracted. We are commissioning some new or ‘emergent’ units in policy areas previously not served by a PRU, which will initially be contracted for three years. In exceptional circumstances, we reserve the option to consider a flexible commissioning model, e.g. more than one Unit or an uplift in funding for PRUs which serve a range of policy areas or there are substantial policy research needs. The amount of funding will be settled during the second phase when opening programmes of work are developed and agreed with SRE. An ‘in principle’ funding letter will be issued to successful Units when the outcome of the commissioning process for phase 1 is communicated, see section 9 for process and indicative timetable. Indicative core funding levels are set out below for information.

  • Standard PRU - £5.5m over a five-year contract on core topics
  • Emergent PRU - £2-3m over an initial three-year contract with scope to extend for further years following a review (listed in bold in the table below).

NIHR is keen to boost capacity in policy research and welcomes applicants who have not worked with the NIHR or the PRP before as well as those who have experience of working with us. To support new applicants to the NIHR PRP a webinar was held on 10 June which is available to watch again on via the Future Funding Post on the NIHR website. We also plan to offer Q&A sessions to support applicants ahead of their Stage 1 application submission. These will be advertised on the NIHR website in due course, together with a set of FAQs, which will be regularly updated.

For the period January 2024 to December 2028, we invite applications to deliver a programme of high-quality research in the following areas:

AreaSpecification
Specialism Specific Economics of Health & Care Systems
Economic Methods of Evaluation in Health & Care Interventions
Policy Innovation & Evaluation
- across the DHSC and Arm's Length Bodies
-with a specific focus on health improvement and disparities policies
Behavioural Science
System Directed Quality, Safety and Outcomes of Health and Social Care
Health & Social Care Workforce
Health and Social Care Systems and Commissioning
Public Health
Adult Social Care
Life Course Maternal & Neonatal Health & Care
Children & Families
Healthy Ageing
Palliative & End of Life Care
Condition Specific Cancer Awareness, Screening & Early Diagnosis
Healthy Weight
Mental Health
Addictions
Reproductive Health
Dementia & Neurodegeneration

We envisage funding two Policy Innovation and Evaluation units, one pan-DHSC and one specifically focussed on health improvement and disparities policies. Applicants may make the case to apply for both units.

We anticipate that units will initially develop a core programme of work for the first 2-3 years which will involve around 60-80% of their resource on an annual basis. The remaining capacity will address rapid responsive work to provide evidence on emerging policy and analytical needs, plus ad-hoc advice to DHSC and ALBs. The balance of programme and responsive projects may vary according to units and/or require adjusting over time to meet policy needs. Units could consider setting up a series of online “surgeries” from time to time that policy makers could book if they have an evidence requirement query. This idea comes from the "Ask PRU" scheme that the Behavioural Science Unit has been operating successfully but other approaches may be preferable for different areas. 

Confirmation of the topic areas and further details of each proposed PRU will be made available as soon as feasible (we expect at the end of July 2022).

Cross-cutting issues

There are a number of cross-cutting themes we expect to feature in all or most PRU research programmes:

  • Mental Health
  • Social Care
  • Health inequalities / disparities
  • Integration of health, social care and public health systems
  • Children
  • Workforce

Every unit needs to:

  • Embed a health inequalities lens to its programme and projects
  • Treat mental health as equally important as physical health
  • Be able to deliver policy evaluation, applying a range of experimental and non-experimental methods; and offer advice on scoping policy evaluation
  • Be able to draw on analytical skills, e.g., systematic reviews; modelling; analysis of large datasets; and evaluation (including of digital technology)
  • Include methodological development
  • Bring on the next generation of policy research leaders

There are also issues which cut across groups of PRUs such as system transformation and recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic (system-directed units). Violence will be a cross-cutting issue across several life-course and condition specific units in addition to Public Health and Adult Social Care. There will be further information regarding these issues in the PRU specific specifications when published.

Ways of Working

Successful PRUs must be willing to work with the Department and its ALBs to respond to policy research needs and to develop a research programme that provides evidence for current and emerging research priorities. The Department will continue a shared management approach for PRUs between units, SRE, NIHR Coordinating Centre colleagues, policy makers and analysts. Each unit will have a designated Liaison Officer (LO) in the SRE directorate, but applicants will work closely with a wide range of policy makers and analysts across DHSC and relevant ALBs. Applicants will be expected to develop collegiate ways of working to ensure development and delivery of the unit’s work programme meets the evidence needs of the relevant policy teams. The units will be expected to work in accordance with the requirements of the UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research UK Policy Framework for Health Social Care Research.

The Department places great importance on communicating findings directly to policy makers, practitioners and service users, as well as through traditional publication routes. This requirement will need to be reflected in the unit’s work programme, ways of working and dissemination plans.

In commissioning the PRUs, applicants are encouraged to submit applications which include multi-disciplinary teams and consider working with other academic institutions, as a consortium, to ensure all professions are in place to deliver the work programme. There is an expectation of collaboration between units, where appropriate, to meet overall policy needs. Outlining ways of working with other potential PRUs to create synergies may strengthen the application. Units will also need to be aware of other relevant work being funded by the NIHR and wider health system partners and be committed to giving added value as appropriate. PRUs will be expected to work with other stakeholders who contribute to building and applying the evidence base in health and social care practice.

Selection criteria

Applicants are expected to include in their application relevant information in line with the selection criteria outlined below:

Expertise

  1. Does the PRU Director appear suitably qualified and experienced to lead a Policy Research Unit? Are the leadership and management arrangements convincing and coherent?
  2. Does the research team have a recognised track record in the appropriate research area/s?
  3. Have the applicants demonstrated the ability to lead and adapt in complex and changing environments?
  4. Does the research team provide the necessary breadth and depth of expertise in a range of disciplines appropriate to the areas of research set out in the Unit specification and cross-cutting themes? Have the applicants demonstrated the ability to draw on others for specific work outside the core expertise or capacity of the group?

Capacity, resourcing and programme management

  1. Does the application demonstrate the capacity to deliver an agreed programme of work to high quality and provide a rapid response facility as outlined in the specification?
  2. Are the roles of the team members clearly described, and with clarity on their added value to the Unit?
  3. Does the proposal set out a sound unit management and support approach, including the appointment of a dedicated PRU Administrator?
  4. Have the applicants demonstrated a clear understanding of key risks to the successful delivery of PRU research, with appropriate mitigations?


Understanding of context and needs

  1. Does the application demonstrate the ability or evidence of understanding how to engage with policy makers and address their needs via research (including ability to adapt to changing priorities)?
  2. Does the application demonstrate awareness of research that is relevant to health and social care policy and service delivery in England and pertinent to the Unit in question?

Collaboration and capability building

  1. Is the proposal offering effective approaches to support collaborative and flexible working with the Department and its ALBs to agree programmes of research and responsive projects, adjusting plans to support policy timeframes as required?
  2. Have the applicants suggested credible strategies to work collaboratively, both within and across units, on cross cutting themes for example, and to link up and develop synergies with other NIHR funded initiatives?
  3. Is the proposal offering effective approaches to increase capacity and capability for research in key areas?

Equality, diversity and inclusion

  1. Does the proposal demonstrate an understanding of, and commitment to, equality, diversity and inclusion principles?
  2. Does the application provide evidence of understanding health inequalities within this PRU topic area, and identify opportunities for addressing these?

Patient and public involvement and engagement

  1. Does the application demonstrate a strategic approach to PPIE that aligns with, and supports the delivery of, the objectives of the Unit?
  2. Does PPIE feature in the organisational structure and governance of the Unit itself? Are the leadership and reporting arrangements adequate and likely to ensure meaningful PPIE contribution to the delivery of the Unit strategic objectives?

Communication

  1. Does the proposal offer a coherent approach to dissemination and stakeholder engagement?


Value for money

  1. Are the proposed costs justified, and do they demonstrate value for money?

Eligibility


The expectation is that units will be based in England to ensure effective links with English policy making. However, applications will be considered from any country within the United Kingdom providing they:

  • address the priority areas in a way that is relevant to the needs of the DHSC (England);
  • demonstrate an understanding of, and effective links with, English policymaking; and
  • comply with all other assessment criteria set out in this research brief.

We welcome applications from all regions within the country and are open to considering both existing and new partnerships forming from different geographies, as a way of meeting the range of expertise required, as well as widening capacity and capability in policy research.

International co-applicants and collaborators (outside of the UK) may be included in the proposals as long as their involvement is clearly justified and directly contributing to the delivery of the PRUs’ objectives outlined in this document.

Commissioning process

This commissioning call does not follow the standard NIHR PRP two stage assessment process. The stages involved are set out in the table below:
Process
Timeframe
Phase 1 - application shortlisting and interviews

ProcessTimeframe
Phase 1 - application shortlisting and interviews
Closing date for stage 1 application 11 October 2022, 1pm
Outcome of the Commissioning Committee review:
- Feedback on applications from Committee and DHSC
- Invitation to interviews for successful applicants
December 2022 - January 2023
Applicant response to feedback January - February 2023
Interviews with the Commissioning Committee February - March 2023
Outcome letters April - May 2023
Phase 2 - Developing the work programmes
Establish Oversight Group and develop opening planned work programmes June - October 2023
Planned work programmes submitted for approval November - December 2023
Contracts start January 2024

A Commissioning Committee composed of independent experts will assess applications and give an initial assessment at Stage 1. Applications deemed to be of a suitable quality will progress to an interview stage, to be held in February-March 2023. Applicants will receive feedback from the Committee and from officials at DHSC on their application and will provide a written response ahead of the interview stage.

Further information about the interviews will be sent to shortlisted applicants. Officials from DHSC and ALBs will also take part in the interview process but will not score applications. The Committee will make funding recommendations to DHSC.

At phase 2, successful applicants will work with officials at the DHSC and ALBs to develop a planned work programme for the first 2-3 years of the Unit.

Additional information for applicants

More general advice on how to make a strong application is also available on the NIHR website. Applicants are also encouraged to familiarise themselves with the NIHR key priorities which apply to all funding programmes, and the NIHR publication Best Research for Best Health: The Next Chapter.

Research management

Day-to-day management of each Unit will be provided by the Unit Director. They and their employers should ensure that they identify, and are able to discharge effectively, their respective responsibilities in accordance with NIHR policies and guidelines.

Patient and Public Involvement and Engagement (PPIE)

All NIHR funding programmes expect the active involvement of patients and the public (e.g. service users and carers) in the funded research, where appropriate. However, the nature and extent of patient and public involvement (PPI) is likely to vary depending on the context of the research. Applicants should describe how the issue of PPI will be addressed throughout the lifetime of the PRU. 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.


The NIHR has published a number of resources to support applicants when considering PPI in their applications: PPI (Patient and Public Involvement) resources for applicants to NIHR research programmes.

Monitoring, outputs and reporting arrangements

The PRU research team will be expected to work closely with NIHR and DHSC stakeholders and research customers and provide regular progress updates over the lifetime of the PRU. Annual reports will also be requested and the performance of the PRU will be monitored based on these reports and feedback from research customers.

Research reports for individual research projects within the PRU work programme will need to be tailored for the research customers, and will typically require peer review ahead of publication. Information on emergent findings that can feed more immediately into policy development will be encouraged and should be made available as appropriate.

Research contractors are required to notify DHSC/NIHR 28 days prior to submission of any publication, or other output for public dissemination, arising from research funded by the PRP. Research contractors remain under an obligation to provide notice even after the contract has ended.

Research oversight

The PRU work programme will be reviewed periodically and approved by appointed members of a PRU Oversight Group, which will comprise DHSC and ALB research customers and will be coordinated by Liaison Officers in DHSC SRE.

Independent advisory groups may be appointed as required by the PRU to support the delivery of high quality research.

The NIHR PRP secretariat will be supported by an overarching advisory group that will oversee the PRUs’ achievements and their contribution to the NIHR ecosystem and beyond.

Transparency

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 available in the government's procurement and contracting transparency requirements guidance.

Application process

To access the application form, please visit the relevant research call post on the NIHR PRP funding opportunities webpage. Please note that call information will only be available on this site when the call is open.

The NIHR PRP runs an online application process and all applications must be submitted electronically through the Research Management System (RMS). 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 published call close date and no applications can be accepted after this deadline.

We strongly recommend that you submit your application the day before the deadline. Once the 1:00 pm deadline passes, the system shuts down automatically and the NIHR will be unable to re-open it. If you are experiencing any technical difficulties submitting your application, please contact the NIHR PRP team on 0208 843 8073 in good time, before 1:00 pm on a closing date.

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

In order for an application to be validated and submitted all named co-applicants will need approved active RMS accounts and all will need to confirm their involvement.

Contacts

General enquiries regarding the application and commissioning process can be directed to the PRP Help Desk by email to prp@nihr.ac.uk.