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Policy Research Units - Frequently Asked Questions

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Published: 09 August 2022

Version: Version 2 - September 2022

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This document will be updated on a rolling basis throughout the Policy Research Units competition. Please consult the PRU specific applicant guidance before submitting questions through the PRU Query form.

Last updated: 06/10/2022

Would it be possible to have co-directors for the units, preferably from two different institutions?

Yes, the application form will allow a "Joint Lead Applicant" and this can be an individual from a different organisation

The applications open over the summer holidays, which may prove difficult for academics - what is being done to work around this?

Our aim is to give applicants a longer-than-usual window to compile a Stage 1 application; with this in mind, we have made information available across a number of months and the call itself will open to applications in August and close in October which we hope will meet the needs of those in academic settings and outside.

Is the general PRU webinar recording from 10 June available on the website?

Yes, a recording is available via the PRU funding post

Will there be a PRU in Urgent and Emergency Care?

A full list of PRUs is available in the PRU funding post

What is the budget for the individual units?

Please consult the individual specifications for the particular unit you are applying to.

Is the population of Children and/or adults with intellectual developmental disabilities to be considered within the PRU call?

Intellectual or developmental conditions or disability is a topic that is relevant across PRUs. Applicants are asked to note that while adults with an intellectual or developmental condition or disability would be in scope for the Adult Social Care PRU/s, as long as the proposed work is related to DHSC/ALB policy, children with intellectual developmental disabilities would not be in scope. The Children and Families PRU does include children with learning disability and/or autism/neurodiverse conditions

What are DHSC priorities about evaluation of programme and policies? Are you envisaging PRUs will conduct trials? Are you interested in evaluations of large scale policy or evidence of programmatic interventions to add into public services? 

Please refer to the overarching specification and individual PRU specifications

Are there disparity and inequality priorities for the PRUs to take forward?

Please refer to the overarching specification and individual PRU specifications

Can non-academic research agencies with relevant and valuable policy experience apply/participate? 

Applicants are eligible provided they comply to UK Policy Framework for Health and Social Care Research

Will the PRP Team/DHSC broker partnerships between academic applicants and non-academic applicants?

Applicants are expected to compile their own teams and consult necessary individuals and organisations

Are you expecting partnerships to develop partnerships across organisations or is it acceptable for all team members to be from the same organisation?

Applicants may configure their team however they wish, provided relevant expertise is available.

What are the greatest opportunities to improve the efficacy and impact of the PRU programme?

There are many ways for PRUs to deliver impact and we are looking for applicants to consider appropriate mechanisms for the PRU they are applying for

Are limitations to populations to be considered within the PRU application and what if the programme fits within more than one stream within the PRU? E.g. life course and condition/specialism?

Collaboration is an important part of the PRUs and we will encourage and support this where needed. We would look to the PRUs to identify and suggest collaborations.

How often do DHSC and PRUs meet to set and iterate research questions?

As part of the PRU commissioning, successful applicants will meet with DHSC to define the research questions. Following this there are a minimum of two oversight group meetings a year which set the direction of the work plan and consider responsive projects. There may be more meetings if required.

What would be the typical size of a Unit Team (number of Universities involved, number with PRU staff based there, range of other organisations included?)

This varies depending on the PRU and the individuals. It may be useful to consult the current PRUs 

What about budget levels? Many existing PRUs have had a fixed budget over a number of years (e.g. 2011-22), so funding has declined significantly in real terms. Are there plans to address this?

Please refer to the overarching specification and individual PRU specifications

There doesn’t seem to be much cross collaboration between the 15 current PRUs, for example few opportunities to benefit from learning or sharing best practice. Is this something that is being considered for the next phase and how do you see the PRUs working together/supporting each other?

Collaboration is an important part of the PRUs and we will encourage and support this where needed. We would look to the PRUs to identify and suggest collaborations.

What will the second stage of the application process look like if successful at Stage 1?

As part of the "applicant response to feedback" step listed in the overarching specification, applicants will be invited to respond in writing to Stage 1 feedback from Committee ahead of a presentation and interview

How do you manage Conflicts of Interests? 

Please refer to NIHR conflict of interest policy 

The term 'policy makers' could mean DHSC, and could refer to other policy makers in national and local government. What would you like to see in terms of the breadth of engagement with policy makers?

The PRUs are to meet the needs of national policy makers but there may be a need to involve local government. Involvement of local government will be more relevant to some PRUs than others. 

Can PRUs apply for additional funding for extra staff to ensure there is capacity to respond?

Requests for additional funds are addressed on a case by case basis to enable the PRU to respond

What is the typical funding level awarded to successful PRUs to date?

Please refer to the funding and award website to see the list of current PRUs and awards

Is equality and diversity of leadership of PRU a consideration?

Please refer to the selection criteria in the overarching specification 

You have said that PRUs fund skills and expertise rather than projects. What is the balance expected in application between demonstrating skills and expertise and what we could do versus detailed descriptions of exemplar projects? 

Please refer to the Policy Research Unit Specific Applicant Guidance

Could you clarify, what is meant by the Health and Care Systems and Health & Social Care systems?

When we are using either term this refers to the NHS social care and public health systems

Are the PRUs funded up to 100% FEC?

 Yes, the 2024-2028 PRUs will be funded up to 100% FEC

Will the PRU webinars in September be recorded, and made available to view on the website?

Yes, the recordings will be made available via the PRP page

What will the maximum budget be for each policy research unit? In previous calls (2009, 2017), the range per unit was £3-5m. Keeping the same upper limit implies a significant reduction in funding in real terms, which is made worse by current inflation rates.

Indicative core funding levels for different PRUs are provided in the invitation to tender. The precise amount of funding will be settled during the negotiation phase when opening programmes of work are developed and agreed.

ONS are now a Public Sector Research Establishment, do we qualify under the commercial banner to apply? In your guidance for applicants it says "The NIHR Policy Research Programme accepts applications from Higher Education Institutions, NHS organisations, commercial and other third sector organisations". 

ONS is eligible, but we would not cover costs for activities that are already part of the core role of the ONS.

I am interested in finding out more about the programme in the pipeline on palliative and end of life care.

Additional information on each PRU is now available through the call website.

Is there any guidance about how we calculate costs for the new units? In particular I am interested in FEC, whether we include inflation and whether we include staff increments.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) should determine the Full Economic Cost (FEC) of their research using the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) methodology. For HEIs, up to 100% of FEC will be paid, provided that TRAC methodology has been used.
Costs must be provided at current prices. An adjustment for inflation will be made annually thereafter at rates set by the Department of Health and Social Care. Whilst allowances for incremental increases should be included on the form, nationally or locally agreed pay increases should be excluded.
Use current rates of pay, and build in any known annual increments (again at current rates).

In the past the PRUs were funded up to 100% FEC. Is this still the case?

The 2024-2028 PRUs will continue to be funded up to 100% FEC.

The FAQ document specifies that the PRUs can be funded up to 100% FEC. Would you be able to provide a little bit more guidance on this, in particular:

- Does this mean you are expecting to fund 100% of the direct costs AND 100% of the overheads?
- The section on value for money says 'Are the proposed costs justified, and do they demonstrate value for money?' Is there any expectation that we should request less than 100% of the overheads in order to provide value for money? Or does this refer rather to justifying completely all the direct costs we are asking for? Do you have any examples of how to demonstrate value for money?
- The call mentions the need to ringfence a part of the budget for rapid responsive flexible capacity (20-40% of the total resource). Should this be ringfenced as a block of the direct funds that can be used to pay for additional expertise as and when needed, or should this be ringfenced time of the PRU team?
- Can I ask about the '20-40% budget retained for flexible work'. Should all of this be allocated to a 'flexible funding' pot and sits in the account waiting to be used? Or can we allocate a smaller amount to this (eg to pay for additional capacity as and when needed), but also ensure that the RAs and post docs employed full time in the PRU would flex to support responsive projects (ie some of that staff resource is used for responsive work, even though it is not labelled 'flexible funding' in the budget).

The PRU budget will fund up to 100% of direct costs and up to 100% of the indirect and estate costs. PRP does not provide payment for NHS indirect research costs. It is always helpful to justify costings for the grant to demonstrate value for money, which can include adjusting the FEC in some cases. This is at the discretion of the applicants and we do not have any examples we can share at this moment. Please note we do not require a full costing breakdown for the PRU in the initial outline application.
The rapid response budget is an indicative budget to cover costs associated with urgent work. This may cover core team involvement in the delivery of rapid response work and may also include costs for hiring or sourcing additional expertise. Further discussions on budgets and costings will occur later on in the commissioning process and on an ongoing basis throughout the PRU award.

The FAQs say that the PRUs are funded at 100% FEC but also say that value for money is an essential criterion. Are you expecting less than 100% FEC or could you comment on the expected funding structure please.

Please see previous answer supplied.

Can the PPIE lead within the PRU be a Co-Investigator –states must be ‘adequately costed and resourced research team member' – we are unclear if this means the wider research team to include all Co-Investigators or if this means the core PRU working team as we are costing in full time Researchers and one of senior researchers will lead PPIE as part of her role but we would also like to list her as a Co-Investigator in the application?

It may be appropriate for the PPIE lead to be a co-investigator on the application. The leadership and managment roles of all co-investigators should be specified in the application.

Does the PPIE lead also have to be a PPIE co-applicant?

There is no mandatory configuration for embedding PPIE into the proposed work. We are looking for proposals to outline a strategic approach to PPIE, which might include PPIE contributors being listed as co-applicants.

Does a public co-applicant need to have an account with the Research Management System and have a CV uploaded?

All co-applicants need to register on the RMS and accept participation & registration instructions where prompted.

Could you please tell me whether letters of support are accepted in addition to the 5 uploads specified?

Please refer to section 6 of PRU applicant guidance.

I am submitting a Dementia & Neurodegeneration PRU project which we understand would be an emergent PRU: £2-3m over an initial three-year contract with scope to extend for further years following a review.
Are we correct that the budget we work up for this Stage 1 application should relate to the potential whole 3 year contract?
And that the funding would be awarded at 100%FEC for all costs (e.g. including overheads)?

The budget you detail in your stage 1 application should take into consideration the entirety of the project's life cycle.
Please note that 2024-2028 PRUs will be funded up to 100% FEC.

Is it allowed to have one of the applicants’ salary costs as directly incurred? Or if someone’s salary is required as a directly incurred cost, is that person disqualified from being an applicant?

Our NIHR finance team has confirmed that it would be acceptable to have one of the applicants’ salary costs directly incurred.

We are wondering about the role of co-investigators. Would there be a role for ECRs as CIs in terms of career development?

It is acceptable to assign an early career researcher as a co-investigator where justified as part of the PRU leadership team.

Given capacity development is 1 goal, can we include more junior academic levels (e.g. Senior Lecturer) within the Co-Applicants (some of whom have specific in-depth expertise), or are you mainly looking for senior experts (potentially with more breadth) ?

How does the panel view the balance between senior Co-I and junior Co-I given the emphasis on capacity and capability strengthening?

There is no mandated configuration for the co-applicants team. We expect proposals to demonstrate a strategic approach towards capacity development, which might include junior academics taking more responsibility as co-applicants.

We are also wondering about involving Research Manager as CI rather than traditionally simply academic CIs.

Co-investigators need not be traditional academics. The leadership / management roles of all co-investigators should be specified in the application.

For 'new' PRUs funding is for 3 years in the first instance. Can you outline the process and requirements for extension of funding to 5 years?

This information is not available currently. The need for unit award extension will be reviewed as necessary.

How much detail of research is expected to be specified at stage 1?

Please refer to relevant information in the guidance for applicants. If information in this document is not clear please contact prp@nihr.ac.uk We are not requesting detailed research plans in the outline stage 1 application form, however there is an opportunity to include up to two (2) example outline descriptions for potential policy research projects. These outline project descriptions can be included as uploads (see section 6: uploads in applicant guidance), should be a maximum of 1 side of A4 and should illustrate how the applicants would approach research requests within the Unit.

Is the unit required to address more than one of the proposed policy topics, for example the Mental Health Unit has 6 core policy topics, would the unit be required to address each of these or have a focus in one or two of the topics?

The PRUs are expected to offer a broad spectrum of expertise to address the priorities outlined in the commissioning brief, or an approach for accessing the relevant expertise as required. A proposal that demonstrates outstanding value in a limited number of areas may be considered, but priority will be given to proposals that can address the entire set of requirements.

How open are you to interpretation, for example the steer to having a lay CI and the 'Ask PRU' functions - will you encourage creative responses to this that reflect the infrastructure of the said PRUs? or are these fixed concepts/inclusion requests?

There is some flexibility in interpretations around these requirements and solutions should be designed to address the needs for different policy research contexts. A key requirement will be to establish a meaningful way to incorporate patient and public involvement and public contributions to the workings of the PRU at different levels, whilst ensuring that research evidence flows to the evidence users and policy stakeholders that often have very specific questions that need to be addressed.

And can you confirm Stage 2 is the interview? No written stage?
Just to clarify: will there be a formal stage 2 application form (similar to other PRP proposals)? This is not entirely clear from the current guidance.

Applicants shortlisted at stage 1 will be invited to respond to assessment panel comments in a stage 2 application form. This will be shared with panel members ahead of interviews. 

Will the revisions for stage 2 have a bigger word count in that case? Or just a box to respond?

Word count restrictions will be relaxed in the stage 2 form.

Rapid Response function is key - can you say more about what has worked well for the DHSC with the current PRUs and what has not?

The nature of a rapid response function is likely to depend on organisational arrangements and processes of the PRU, as well as the demands and specific needs of the policy customers the individual PRU is meant to serve. Typically early conversations with policy teams to help shape requests have proven valuable, to understand the requirements and agree how findings can be appropriately shared and used. For the purpose of Stage 1, we would like applicants to explain how they will be able to address emerging policy evidence requests. This might take the form of guiding policy customers through existing evidence, advising on likely research gaps to be addressed via standard NIHR commissioning mechanisms, or planning and delivering small scale research projects at short notice.

To what extent do you expect us to define who the policymakers are in the stage 1 bids?

We acknowledge that access to policy customers can be challenging and DHSC Liaison Officers have the specific role of connecting researchers with the relevant policy communities. Success of policy research depends on the ability to get evidence to the right people at the right time and to keep research relevant over a longer period of time despite changing circumstances. This requires effective relationships with a customer base that can be very dynamic. The Stage 1 application should focus on providing evidence of the capability to build, develop and maintain effective relationships to maximise the chances for research to be impactful, within the specific policy context.

How would you view collaborators from the third sector? eg charities, Royal Colleges?

Collaborations with third sector organisations are encouraged where these bring additional relevant expertise for the PRU. 

I assume we will still have Liaison Officers to help us navigate the policy arena?

DHSC Liaison Officers will continue to support PRUs with building connections with relevant policy teams and acting as a primary contact point.

What is the advice on co-applicants or collaborators from countries outside of England (both UK and internationally)?

Please refer to more detailed guidance on eligibility in the invitation to tender. Collaborators from outside England can be involved in PRU bids. It will be important to demonstrate where they directly contribute to the delivery of the PRU’s objectives.

How much detail is needed or can be given about how he budget will be spent over the 5 years?

Detailed budgets will be agreed once research programmes have been specified later in the negotiation phase.

Just to clarify - the overall budget is salaries, running costs and whatever research we do? There isn't a separate negotiation of research costs later?

Detailed budgets will be agreed once research programmes have been specified later in the negotiation phase

When do you need a full costing? At what stage will a detailed costing have to be provided?

Additional detail on costs will be requested after successful shortlisting at stage 1. Further cost adjustments are also expected once research programmes are defined pre-contract.

How many PRUs is NIHR expecting to fund in total?

We expect to fund at least 19 PRUs

What is the %FTE a Lead would normally be allocating to this?

There is no fixed rule but the expectation is that the role of PRU director will be time intensive.

What do you want to see from the specific thematic PRU areas, over and above what is stated on the NIHR web pages?

We expect applicants to describe how they would address the requirements outlined in the commissioning briefs. Detailed priorities and research programmes will be negotiated afterwards.

How much expertise is needed within the named PRU team /leadership and how much can be drawn from a wider expert network as the need for evidence arises. e.g. Addictions PRU covers Drugs, Tobacco, Gambling and Alcohol - would we need to demonstrate evidence of all of these in the leadership or can we show active collaboration we could draw on?

It is acknowledged that a given collaborative team may not include individuals with depth of expertise in all areas, however a broad familiarity of the stated research domains is expected, with established routes to obtaining the additional required expertise as required.

Are you able to give us some examples of models of how one can pivot to respond to rapid response calls (e.g. can we have a pool of funds ring-fenced for this? Is there flexibility to drop programmed activities if the requirement for rapid response evidence is high than expected from the outset?)

We expect the PRUs to work flexibly to be able to accommodate rapid response requests. This can mean that on occasion pre-programmed activities may need to be delayed or halted whilst rapid response work is prioritised. The ability to respond quickly to requests is important and applicants should consider appropriate management structures and systems to enable this. Typically we might expect between 20 and 40% of PRU budgets to be used to support responsive work, but this varies between PRUs.

You want to build in quite a bit of flexibility in delivery of the programme. Can you say more about how that might work from a commissioning perspective? Will there be flexibility in the budget/funding to allow that from your end?

It is expected that PRUs accommodate most responsive requests flexibly within their budgets. On occasion, where available budgeted PRU resources are insufficient to meet demand from policy customers, additional funding extensions may be considered.

What is the one key advice on (1) please do this and (2) please dont do this when completing the application. Basically, want to you hate to see and what do you love to see.

No specific advice is given here beyond the recommendation to read the materials supplied in the call post carefully, referring to the selection criteria that have been published. The commissioning panel will use these selection criteria when making funding recommendations to DHSC / NIHR.

As I understand it, not all current PRUs have a dedicated PRU Administrator. This is included in the selection criteria relating to a sound approach to unit management and support. Can the panel expand on what is needed here and the rationale?

It is recommended for PRUs to appoint an administrator given the extent of interactions with various stakeholders and the level of administration involved in the management of the Unit.

How much will the Levelling Up agenda drive decision making or frameworks for these PRUs?

Health inequalities and reduction of disparities are important cross-cutting themes for the NIHR Policy Research Programme and are expected to be an important focus for PRUs. Please also refer to the “Equality, diversity and inclusion” selection criteria when preparing your application.

There are some PRU topics which are complementary or could add to the evidence based in a different capacity (e.g. mental health and addictions or mental health and children and families) - is it important to demonstrate any of this in the application? Are there opportunities for these PRUs to work together when funded?

Collaborations between PRUs will be encouraged. This will be a consideration in due course the development of research programmes. 

Given political changes over the summer, are there likely to be any changes to specifications for any of the units?

We are not expecting changes to the specification at this time.

Regarding 'working across PRUs' we would need to avoid funding double jeopardy, so one assumes we could put indicative research activities in the application? (This is to future proof against one PRU being funded in one area and another (i.e. the one proposed for partnership) not being funded)

Details of research activities will be discussed in due course in the negotiation phase ahead of contracts starting. Collaboration and potential for duplication across PRUs will be a consideration at that point.

What are the governance arrangements for the PRU?

Some governance expectations are outlined in the invitation to tender. Applicants are welcome to propose further arrangements that are likely to make a positive impact to the management or impact of the Unit.

Generally, how will the second stage of the process work? Interview with whom? Then agreement of work programme? Can you tell us anything about the format for the interview?

Details of the interview process (second stage of assessment) are still being finalised. We expect the interviews to be held for shortlisted applicants with members of our expert commissioning panel and representatives of the policy customers of the PRU. Details of the research programme will be defined subsequently during the negotiation phase.

If you are thinking about applying for the new joint PIRU, would it be possible to amend the application form to allow more than 13 co-investigators since this would be an application effectively for two Units?

The number of co investigators could be adjusted if required after stage 1 shortlisting (in the stage 2 form).

Do the CVs of co-applicants get included in the final consolidated pdf of the application (they don't seem to)?

No, CVs are not included in the NIHR Standard Application Form.

You say the CVs will be visible to the CCF team, but not to the commissioning panel - is that right?

This is correct.

Economic Methods of Evaluation in Health & Care Interventions - is this looking for new and innovative methods

There will be a balance to be found between devoting PRU resources and effort to innovative methodological development and ensuring there is capacity to offer immediate support to policy teams and stakeholders in decision making processes. A key requirement will be to inform policy makers and economists at DHSC and Arms Length Bodies in the short to medium term. There is a risk that if the main focus of the PRU is on methodological innovation, rather than using tried and tested approaches, the Unit may be unlikely to meet this requirement. However, the team’s experience and capacity for methodological innovation will be seen as a strength for any PRU application.

Could you say a bit more about what you are looking for from the short research proposals that we upload at the end of the application? Is this about the content or how we would engage to develop the work?

These outline project descriptions are intended to demonstrate the team’s approach to addressing policy research questions.

I have heard that some of the areas are perhaps going to fund more than one PRU - given the breadth of the spec is there room for focus in applications

We are planning to fund at least one PRU in each priority area and we would look for broad expertise within each of the units to respond to the requirements set out in the specification. The precise budget for units will be determined during the contracting phase when developing the opening programme of work based on policy needs. If there is a case for funding over and above the £5.5m, or £2-3m for an emergent PRU, or a clear case at the commissioning panel for two units in a high priority area, this will be considered.