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Specification Document - PHIRST



Call for Expressions of Interest: Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST)

Closing date: 1pm on 28 January 2020

Call Specification

UK public health research is expected to undergo substantial evolution following the publication of the Academy of Medical Sciences report ‘Health of the Public 2040’ and establishment of the Strategic Coordination of Health of the Public Research (SCHOPR) Committee. SCHOPR has recently recommended future priorities for public health research to the four CMOs in the UK. There is a push to build on existing strengths to make the UK a world leader in public health and prevention research. This will centre on co-producing research with the public, policy makers and practitioners to ensure it helps answer the most important research questions facing policymakers and services at local and national levels.

In response to this need the NIHR Public Health Research (PHR) Programme wishes to facilitate the co-production of responsive research with a focus on local governments. Such research should help inform the delivery and implementation of current or future public health interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health. The PHR Programme will contribute to this ambition through the commissioning of two Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST). Effective co-production with local authorities is fundamental to the successful working of this initiative and will result in the upskilling and utilisation of existing research skills and knowledge within local authorities. It is envisaged that this activity will complement other initiatives being taken forward by the NIHR and DHSC to enable local government to become more research active.

The purpose of this call for expressions of interest is to identify two suitable teams that will undertake responsive research with a focus on local government across the UK. The teams will be commissioned by the PHR Programme for an initial three year contract. The commissioned teams will have a demonstrable track-record of a broad range of public health research, including access to the full range of scientific disciplines and methods needed to generate knowledge to inform public health interventions. The successful teams will have significant experience of working responsively with a variety of traditional and non-traditional public health practice and policy partners (such as transport, planning and environmental departments).

This call complements the scope and work of the NIHR School for Public Health Research Public Health Practice Evaluation Scheme (PHPES), the NIHR PHR Review team and phinder (as a possible source of research needs). PHR and the School for Public Health Research will work closely together to ensure minimal overlap and maximum complementarity of activities. The PHR scheme is aimed UK wide and could present opportunities for comparisons across devolved administrations.

Teams expressing an interest may be from more than one institution. They should demonstrate the following in their Expression of Interest:

  • An outstanding track record in policy-relevant public health research resulting in high quality published outputs.
  • A track record of producing public health research, translating knowledge for public health practice, policy and research, and working with policy and practice partners to maximise the use and relevance of research evidence.
  • Evidence of sustainable and close working with traditional and non-traditional UK local government public health partners to co-produce research and aid the upskilling of local government research expertise.
  • Expertise in a broad range of outcome, process and economic evaluation methods suitable for population and individual level public health interventions, including natural experiments and randomised trials, as well as other observational methods using both qualitative and quantitative methods as appropriate.
  • An ability to deliver high quality research within relatively short timescales.
  • Evidence of access to a network of academic public health topic expertise, methods experts and other academic collaborators with specialist skills/knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, and an ability to rapidly develop links with particular subject or methods expertise where these do not already exist within the team.
  • An excellent understanding of the breadth and complexity of local and national government public health policy, practice and structures within England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • A track record in making scientific knowledge available to commissioners and policymakers, using a diverse range of media and face to face encounters.
  • Advanced skills in communication and negotiation, as well as meaningful public involvement in research.
  • The ability to work across the UK and not just within the teams immediate geographic location.
  • Familiarity with the policy and goals of the Department of Health and Social Care and NIHR.


The Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) will work alongside local governments to co-produce and conduct public health research of existing or planned interventions. With the aim of producing robust evidence to inform future policy making and commissioning decisions. Although the research undertaken may at times be localised or topic focused, we expect to see wider system learning and widely applicable recommendations. Applicants will therefore need to consider how they will derive generalisable lessons from each piece of research.

We hope that advancements in theory and methods will be a by-product of this call. A key requirement of the initiative is to achieve impacts through public health policy and practice. To achieve this, applicants will need to be adept at knowledge exchange, and have a demonstrable track record of working closely with policy and practice partners to apply research findings in order to deliver change and support upskilling and increased research activity within local government.

Publication of outputs from research undertaken by the teams will be agreed on a case-by-case basis; however, there is an expectation of at least the following from each defined research project: (1) an accessible evidence briefing for policy and practice decision makers; (2) a full and accessible research output (e.g. journal article) in line with NIHR’s Open Access policy. We will also encourage a broader range of co-produced outputs associated with each piece of work, such as presentations, use of digital formats as appropriate (e.g. podcast, video, infographics), along with a communication strategy to ensure effective knowledge exchange between the relevant user groups.

In commissioning a team with a critical mass of evaluators, we would expect there to be efficiencies in activity: The value of the contract is likely to be £1.5m over three years, commencing at least two new projects per year, depending on the scope of each project - to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis with the PHR programme.

Given that these will be the first Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST), we anticipate considerable shared learning in the first three years and therefore there will be a need for flexibility of approach and a willingness to work closely with the PHR Programme to review progress during the contract and adapt working methods as necessary to ensure the scheme is a success.

Depending on demand from public health policy and practice communities, and available funds, PHR may seek to commission adverts for further teams before the expiration of these contracts, or existing teams may be asked if they would be willing to increase their capacity. 

Assessment process and timetable

Expressions of interest will be shortlisted by the PHR Programme. The shortlisted teams will be asked to submit a Stage 2 application form and to attend an interview in London. Two or three representatives from each of the shortlisted teams will be invited to the interview. The interview panel will be made up of a subset of the PHR Prioritisation Committee and Research Funding Committees with both public health practice and academic expertise represented.

Expressions of interest should be limited to three sides of A4 in size 11 font and should indicate:

  • A description of the team, its disciplinary skills, its host institution(s); its overall capacity and ability to recruit/supervise/direct resources as needed.
  • How the team meets the criteria set out in this specification document.
  • A statement of the general approach to be adopted, how the team will plan its work, and proposed ways of working to achieve the goals of the initiative
  • Arrangements for management, governance and scientific oversight of the contract and specific projects.
  • A brief business plan, including division of resources between capacity to develop and deliver on projects and other project specific funds within the maximum budget of £1.5m over three years.
  • Assurance that a stage two application, if shortlisted, would have the support of host institution(s). Please also include any other letters of support, as necessary.

Additional to the three page EoI, brief CVs (each no more than one side of A4 size 11 font) of the lead applicant and up to two others likely to be named as co-applicants or to play a key role in the team should also be provided. CVs should clearly indicate their track record in public health research (e.g. training and qualifications, grants and publications). The roles of these individuals and their level of input must also be stated.

The expression of interest should be no longer than three A4 sides and should address all the key skills and experiences noted in the specification document. EoI’s should be emailed to by 1pm on 28 January 2020.

We anticipate shortlisted applicants developing a Stage 2 proposal throughout February and March 2020, with interviews taking place during mid-late May and contracts being signed from August 2020. Teams will be expected to be in a position to start work within August 2020. The successful teams should expect to be in regular contact with a designated NIHR Programme Manager at NETSCC, and will be required to complete 6 monthly contact reviews and yearly financial reconciliations.

Notes to applicants 

The NIHR Public Health Research programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, NISCHR in Wales, and HSC R&D, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland. Researchers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are eligible to apply for funding under this programme. 

Transparency agenda

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: