Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft. To browse the NIHR site please use a modern, secure browser like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

The UK research ecosystem explained

On this page, you’ll find our quick guide to the UK research ecosystem. It explains the roles and remits of the different organisations involved and where the NIHR fits in.

Your go-to destination for life sciences research

The UK is one of the leading places in the world to deliver life sciences research. Read why the UK should be your go-to destination.  If you have never conducted health research in the UK before, this helpful guide will give you a head start in understanding the different organisations that make up our research ecosystem, and what they do.

The key players

If you bring your research to the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales), you are likely to interact with:

  • NHS
  • NIHR
  • universities
  • funders
  • regulators: MHRA, HRA, NICE
  • market access initiatives


The NHS  is the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system. It serves a population of 67 million and provides a national test-bed for health research.

The NHS is divided into three different types of healthcare:

  • Primary care. This is often the first point of contact for people in need of healthcare, such as seeing a General Practitioner (GP).
  • Secondary care. These services generally need a referral from a GP to a hospital for the patient to access particular expertise or more specialised knowledge, skills or equipment than general practice can provide.
  • Tertiary care. This is highly specialised treatments such as organ transplantation.

NHS services are also divided into geographical areas by NHS Trusts. This helpful video by the King's Fund is a great resource for understanding how the NHS works.

The NIHR makes it easier to work with the NHS and other key players. We are often referred to as the most integrated health research system in the world.

About the NIHR

We are funded by the UK government’s Department of Health and Social Care to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research. We do that by funding, enabling and delivering world-leading health and social care research that improves people's health and wellbeing and promotes economic growth.

Part of our remit is to work in partnership with the life science industry to help you and deliver your research in the UK health and social care environment. We offer a wide range of support, from early stage, translational research through to later stage, large-scale clinical trials. This includes:

  • advice, funding or expertise to develop an idea or product
  • patients or the public to review your protocol
  • tools to cost your trial for UK delivery
  • investigators and sites or specialist facilities to conduct your research
  • data and samples to conduct your research
  • support to get your study set-up
  • tools and support to monitor the progress of your study

NIHR-funded research facilities and people are embedded throughout NHS organisations and sites. We part fund many NHS clinicians and clinical academics so that they can dedicate time to research and sharing their expertise with health innovators. You can access our resources and support through our regional networks

In these regions, the NIHR is also connected to local health and social care services such as care homes, dentists, pharmacies, emergency services, and even local authorities including councils and public services. This enables the NIHR to deliver research across all NHS health and care services.

The UK: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales

We work closely with our colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to provide a seamless service to companies bringing research to the UK.
Each of the 4 UK nations has its own body that governs the delivery of health and care research. However, our research systems, services and processes are UK-wide. For example:

We work closely with our colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to provide a seamless service to companies bringing research to the UK.

Universities and clinical academics

The UK is home to some of the top universities in the world.

Our universities are often connected or co-located with the NHS, and incorporate ‘teaching’ or ‘university’ in the title, such as Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

The UK is host to many clinical academics - qualified healthcare professionals who also work in academia, typically in research, teaching, or both. They balance their time between treating patients, training clinicians, and conducting research that contributes to the scientific understanding of their field.

The NIHR funds clinical academics and supports research career progression through the NIHR Academy. We can connect you with relevant clinical academic professionals with expertise in your therapeutic area to help with your study or trial.


We are the largest investor in health and care research in the UK. Funding is available for healthcare innovators and companies to advance the development of innovative new medicines, healthtech devices and diagnostics for use in the UK’s NHS or social care environment.

We can also advise companies about other funders. Many funding bodies in the UK run programmes, for example: Innovate UK, UKRI, SBRI Healthcare, and NHS England can support you to obtain funding.

UK regulators

You will need regulatory approvals if you want to develop and use:

  • new medicines
  • medtech or healthtech devices
  • diagnostics

In the NHS or the wider care environment. The regulatory bodies in the UK are:

  • The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA)  is the regulatory authority responsible for clinical trial approvals, oversight, and inspections in the UK. It also regulates medicines, medical devices and blood components for transfusion in the UK. You will need MHRA approval to run a clinical trial in the UK. 
  • Health Research Authority (HRA) Approval brings together the HRA's assessment of governance and legal compliance with the independent ethical opinion by a Research Ethics Committee (REC). Certain types of research may only need to apply for REC review. If your research project involves accessing confidential patient information, you may need to apply to the Confidentiality Advisory Group.
  • MHRA and HRA Combined Review is the approval route for new Clinical Trials of Investigational Medicinal Products and combined medicine and device trials. Research teams can make a single application for a Combined Review and submissions go to both the MHRA and a research ethics committee in parallel, to speed up the approval process.
  • The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) decides which treatments are available on the NHS. They assess new drugs and treatments as they become available and provide guidelines and recommendations on their use for particular conditions. All recommendations are based on a review of clinical and economic evidence. They also play a role in technology appraisals.
  • You will also have to apply to the UK government for authorisation to licence or market a medicine or device in the UK.

On-route to market / market access

If you’re en route to market, we can advise you on support services for the last stage of your journey.

Organisations such as the Health Innovation Network and Accelerated Access Collaborative are government-funded organisations that support the adoption and spread of technologies across the UK.

The NHS Innovation Service provides co-ordinated support for innovators from all stakeholders across the research ecosystem, including regulatory, research, and supply chain support.

We can put you in touch with the right teams within these organisations to support the adoption of your innovation into the NHS.

Where do I start?

As you can see, the UK research ecosystem is made up of a number of different components. We like to think of the NIHR as the fabric that joins them all together. We have close links with ‘all of the above’ and our dedicated Industry team has comprehensive knowledge of the UK research ecosystem - we can be your guide and help you to navigate your research journey.

Get in touch today to start the conversation.

Contact the Industry team