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Public Health Research

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme funds research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions, intended to improve the health of the public, and reduce inequalities in health.




The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, Health and Care Research Wales, and the HSC R&D Division, Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland.

The primary aim of the programme is the evaluation of practical interventions. We will fund both primary research (mainly evaluative, but also some preparatory research) and secondary research (evidence synthesis); precise methods will need to be appropriate to the question being asked, and the feasibility of the research.

Our research serves a variety of key stakeholders including: decision-makers in local government; primary care organisations and other local public services; third sector organisations; relevant national agencies (e.g. NICE) concerned with improving public health and reducing health inequalities; researchers; public health practitioners, and the public.

We fund research through our commissioned and researcher-led workstreams. The researcher-led workstream offers the flexibility for ambitious evaluations of public health interventions. If a case can be made for public health importance, scientific quality and value for money, there is no upper limit to the amount of funding that can be applied for, and applications can be made at any point, with three cut-off dates throughout the year. Multi-factorial research will be considered.

All of our funded projects are eligible for publication in the NIHR Journals Library. This open access resource is freely available online, and provides a full and permanent record of NIHR-funded research.


Our scope is multi-disciplinary and broad, covering a wide range of interventions that improve public health.

The programme funds research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions, specifically, we provide new knowledge on the benefits, costs, acceptability and wider impacts of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public, and reduce inequalities in health.

Proposed primary outcome measures should always be health-related, unless otherwise specified in a commissioning brief. Examples include examining whether regeneration programmes improve public health and reduce health inequalities; evaluating employer schemes to encourage walking or cycling to work; and assessing interventions that encourage healthy eating among school children.

Applicants wishing to evaluate public health interventions that sit both inside and outside of the NHS, or on the boundary, are encouraged to discuss their proposals with PHR Programme staff at an early stage.

Large-scale studies

The PHR Programme is also keen to see applications for large-scale evaluation studies with the potential for national reach. This means primary research projects which:

  • address an issue of major strategic public health importance, with the cost in line with the significance of the problem to be investigated
  • are likely to lead to changes in practice that will have a significant impact on a large number of the population across the UK
  • aim to fill a clear 'evidence gap', and likely to generate new knowledge
  • have the potential for findings that are generalisable and transferable
  • bring together a team with strong expertise and track record across the full range of relevant disciplines

If you are planning a project of this type you may wish to refer to the MRC Complex Interventions Framework.

What we fund

The PHR Programme will support

  • Applications focused on intervention development where an intervention already exists, and for which there is an evidence base, but it requires adaptation to situations such as a new context (e.g. a change in setting or target behaviour or client group) or amalgamation of separate, defined interventions so that they complement each other.
  • Where a compelling case is made, we will also fund work to establish feasibility and to pilot a definitive intervention. However, any work related to optimising an existing intervention prior to evaluation, where research has shown that the intervention performs sub-optimally and there are specific remediable aspects of the intervention, such as the delivery method or the timing of elements, must not exceed 6-months in duration.

The PHR Programme will not support

  • The creation of new interventions*, or processes, where active components of existing interventions are recombined to create a new intervention, whether or not driven by a logic model, or underlying theory.
  • The design and development of new websites, apps, text messages or other software designed as all, or part of, creating a new intervention. Websites or other supporting material with the aim of publicising the study or supporting study recruitment, for example, which is only required to carry out the research study, would be supported within the general rules of the programme, as would material associated with the optimisation of an existing intervention prior to evaluation.

*The creation of new interventions would likely fall under the remit of the MRC Public Health Intervention Development (PHIND) Programme.

See the success rates for PHR proposals.

Our people

In this section you can read more on the people involved with the assessment of applications for the PHR Programme, read the minutes of previous funding decisions and find out more about becoming a reviewer or a Committee member.

Our committees

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme has two committees of experts who play an important role in assessing our stage 1 and stage 2 proposals and identifying topics for research.

The PHR Prioritisation Committee (view list of prioritisation committee members) advises on the identification and prioritisation of research topics and stage 1 proposals based on public health importance. Those successful applicants are assessed by the PHR Funding Committee (view list of funding committee members) based on their scientific quality, feasibility, and value for money.

Members of NIHR Committees are required to declare any interests which conflict, or may be considered to conflict, with NIHR business, or may be perceived as influencing decisions made in the course of their work within NIHR. All members are asked to complete the Register of Interest form (annually), which is intended to capture long term predictable interests that could be perceived to lead to conflicts of interest. These and other interests are judged on a case by case basis at individual meetings.

Our  Programme Director and Prioritisation Committee Chair

Professor Brian Ferguson

Our Funding Committee Chair

Professor Peymane Adab


Our community of reviewers play a vital part in maintaining and improving the quality of the PHR Programme projects and outputs. They are sought from a variety of fields, including from those who work in and use NHS services.

To demonstrate our gratitude to our reviewers, and acknowledge the important work they do for the programme, the names of past year’s reviewers are listed.

Contact us

We offer a wide variety of assistance during all stages of the research process. If in doubt, please get in touch. For help with applying for PHR funding, please contact us:


Fast-track scheme

Fast-track scheme

Most research supported by the PHR Programme will follow the normal two-stage process of assessment before being funded. However, it may sometimes be necessary to accelerate the handling of a topic and in such circumstances researchers may be eligible to apply through the fast-track scheme.

The fast-track scheme provides an opportunity to submit a stage 2 proposal directly, shortening the length of time it takes for a funding decision to be made.  However, please bear in mind that proposals accepted onto the fast-track scheme will compete on equal terms with other stage 2 proposals which have had the benefit of feedback by the Research Funding Committee at stage 1.

The most obvious indication for fast-tracking is to take advantage of a time-limited opportunity to conduct research.  This may be when research is needed around a natural experiment where data collection needs to start within a timescale which can’t be accommodated by the programme’s normal processes.

If you would like your proposal to be considered for the fast-track scheme, please contact You will be asked to:

  • convince the secretariat that there is significant benefit to fast-tracking your application, and
  • submit a written summary of your proposal (usually about one side of A4) in a PICO format.

The information you provide will then be considered, and you will be informed whether your proposal is eligible for fast-tracking. You will then be provided with more information about submitting your stage 2 application, and the timescales for doing this.

Local Authority research

The Public Health Research Programme is keen to enable local government to be research active. One way it is doing this is through the Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) scheme  which enables evaluation of schemes that local authorities already have in place, providing research evidence to meet local government needs. Our funded research aims to help find out what impact these schemes have on the health and health inequalities experienced by local populations.

The PHIRST scheme

The PHIRST scheme links up academic teams with local authorities to evaluate work that is already happening in local government across the UK. A blog by Helen Walters, NIHR Public Health Consultant Advisor provides the thinking behind its creation.

Local authorities with initiatives in need of research by the PHIRST scheme can apply to the advertised call which is currently open for applications until 10th January 2022.

To date, four PHIRST teams have been commissioned and we are currently commissioning a fifth PHIRST team to start evaluating initiatives in 2022.

The PHIRST scheme is currently supporting evaluation of the nine initiatives listed below. The teams are also working closely with other Local Authorities to assess research needs and coproduce research plans for a further 15 Local Authority projects.

PHIRST North team

Led by Professor Ashley Adamson

This team is evaluating the effectiveness of a newly commissioned employability service through the 'No one left behind' project, and the impact of South Gloucestershire Councils Public Space Management programme on their populations health through the 'COVID-19 Public Spaces Management' project.

PHIRST Bristol and Cardiff team

Led by Professor Rona Campbell

This team are evaluating a London based intervention, 'Free universal breakfast club and secondary school meals' project. The research will focus on the intervention's impact on attainment, health, financial and social benefits. This team are also evaluating the impact of Mindset Teams for supporting Resilience, Health and Wellbeing in primary-aged school children in Scotland.

PHIRST London team

Led by Associate Professor Susie Sykes

This team are evaluating the impact of restricted food and drink advertising on children through their London-based project 'A realist evaluation of a public health community of practice advocacy project to restrict outdoor advertising (HFSS)'. Their second project is evaluating the impact of a digital community approach and non-traditional service delivery through the 'Essex Coronavirus Action Support (EAS) , Essex Welfare Service (EWS)' project. A third, Hertfordshire council-based project,  Evaluation of the development of a specialist behaviour change unit and its contribution to local government, is now underway.

PHIRST University of Hertfordshire team

Led by Professor Katherine Brown and Professor Wendy Wills

This team are evaluating the move to remote services for drugs and alcohol services in Leeds through their project 'New models of remote delivery in drug and alcohol services introduced during COVID-19'. Their second project is evaluating the impact of delivering a remote exercise referral scheme in Wales through the 'Evaluating the adaptation of delivery of the National Exercise Referral Scheme (NERS) to a virtual platform as a result of COVID-19' project. They have recently started a project to evaluate the pilot of a Whole Systems Approach to Diet and Healthy Weight Community Project, led by the Type 2 Diabetes Prevention programme in Scotland.

Exploring how to support local government health research

We recognise that innovation is happening in local authorities all the time. We want to explore how current, or new, systems could be developed at a local level to support sustainable and influential research activity. To help enable this, the PHR programme funded the following projects under the NIHR Local Authority Research System call (20/30 and 20/54) in Summer 2020. This funding scheme provided specific funding (up to £50,000 per site) for 14 sites across the UK to explore how a local authority might form the basis of a research system that will enable that authority to become research active. A summary of the findings from the Local Authority Research Systems projects is available upon request.

Support and enabling health research in local authority: an exploratory study (SERLA) 

This project aims to find out what the factors, relationships, and processes are that contribute towards generating research evidence that is of relevance to local public health and shape its practice.

Designing and implementing a research infrastructure in Newcastle City Council to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of local decision making and enable active participation in the North East and North Cumbria Applied Research Collaborative

This project aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of the current ways in which research and analytical roles are utilised within Newcastle City Council, and designing a research infrastructure that is able to generate new research and critically assess and mobilise existing research.

Scoping a local authority research system (LARS) for Bradford

This project explores the potential for, and what would be needed to develop, to create a local authority research system model for Bradford District.

Local Authority Research Systems: exploring the will and readiness for research in Wakefield

This project aims to explore the strengths that can be built on within Wakefield Council to create a stronger research culture.

Developing a Local Authority Research System: Middlesbrough Council and Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council and Teesside University

This project aims to examine what the barriers and facilitators are to councils and universities working together via a signed memorandum of understanding (MOU).

Developing a Public Health Research System to Support Local Government in Kent

This project aims to understand how to develop a system to support councils to use research evidence more effectively and to develop, usually in collaboration with university research departments, good quality applications for funding.

Local Authority Research Systems: developing Doncaster Council’s road map to building greater organisational research capacity

The project addresses four aims: to identify what steps are needed to move from pockets of research work to a research system with local authorities; are officers and members willing to pursue this work; what types of people do we need to apply for research funding; what resources do we need to set up a research system.

Local Authority Research Systems – A qualitative study to inform the development of a South Gloucestershire Council wide research system

This project aims to find out how to create a research system within South Gloucestershire Council.

Barriers to health research at Blackpool Council - developing potential solutions using consensus methodology

This project aims to explore how Blackpool Council can work with the NHS and local universities and what barriers need to be overcome.

Local Authority Research Systems: identifying the capacity and infrastructure needs of Birmingham City Council

This project aims to find out what new infrastructure or capacity building is needed to support research and the use of research findings by Birmingham City Council. The study also aims to understand how universities and other organisations that support research can work with local authorities to support their needs and enable the council to embed research in its work.

Local Authority Research Systems Call

The aim of this project is to explore research activities within Norfolk County Council, to understand more fully who is involved in research and what organisational structures, processes and practices may facilitate or limit research across all local authorities.

Public Health; Plymouth Priorities (PHeePP)

This project aims to enable public health council staff and university researchers to work together to identify the best ways for public health research to be developed and supported in Plymouth.

Research-informed decision-making: learning from each other to develop research capacity and activity within South Tyneside Council whilst harnessing the benefits of a wider regional research support infrastructure

This project seeks to understand how South Tyneside Council can increase its use of research evidence and increase its ability to conduct its own local research on impact of services it provides.

Connecting Communities: Building Relationships - Improving decision-making and practice in Public Health and Social Care research by making the connections between Cardiff Council and Cardiff University

The project aims to bring together key local stakeholders to enable the local authority to become research active, as well as investigating the links between public health and social care research to improve local decision making and practice.


Funded projects under the PHR Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams (PHIRST) call 20/11

We are looking to explore how we can strengthen our support to research in the local government environment. In 2020, the Public Health Research programme commissioned the following four Public Health Intervention Responsive Studies Teams to co-produce responsive research to meet local government need.

Health Intervention Responsive Studies Team: PHIRST North

Latest funding opportunities for Public Health Research

22/6 Delivering a Sustainable Health and Care System - (PHR Programme)

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme is accepting Stage 1 applications to this NIHR Themed Call

21/597 Public Health Research Programme researcher-led

The Public Health Research Programme are accepting stage 1 applications to their researcher-led workstream.

21/599 Continuing priority research topics of interest to the PHR Programme

The Public Health Research Programme are accepting stage 1 applications to their commissioned workstream for this topic.

21/596 NIHR James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnerships rolling call (PHR Programme)

The Public Health Research Programme are accepting stage 1 applications to their researcher-led workstream.

21/595 NIHR NICE Rolling Call (PHR Programme)

The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme is accepting stage one applications to this funding opportunity.

All Public Health Research funding opportunities

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Latest blogs from Public Health Research