By Dr Helen Compton, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Innovations Directorate, NIHR Central Commissioning Facility (CCF)

Published: 9 November 2018

Dr Helen Compton describes how the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is making it easier for charities to collaborate with them on health and care research projects.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research. Our aim is to improve the health and wealth of the nation through research.

A key ingredient in NIHR’s success has been working with partners from charities, as well as other public funders and industry, both to achieve our aims and to improve the UK research ecosystem.

The benefits of collaborations between the NIHR and charities are many. Collaborating connects the research landscape in England, to ensure that research provides the maximum benefit for patients and the public and that as funders we make best use of our resources.

Collaborating also increases the scale and impact of funded research, supports UK research competence, avoids duplication and waste in research, and supports the pull-through of charity-funded research into the NIHR (and vice versa).

To date, the majority of this collaboration has been between charities and NIHR infrastructure. Our infrastructure, such as our Clinical Research Network and Biomedical Research Centres, provides vital services, facilities and expertise that help to make research happen in England.

Back in 2009, our infrastructure collaborated with charities on around £210 million of research; in 2017 this figure was £464 million.

But our infrastructure is just a part of what we do - the NIHR also funds research through its nine research programmes. NIHR research programmes fund applied health, public health and social care research in areas of identified market failure or evidence need.

Collaborating with charities on research projects is an important element of our research programmes. For example, we’ve co-funded a £2.7 million research programme on shoulder pain with Versus Arthritis and a landmark trial investigating if statins can treat multiple sclerosis with the MS Society.

But when we surveyed charities in October 2017 about their understanding of NIHR research programmes, we found they were comparatively little known. Only a quarter (26%) of respondents knew the research programmes well or knew a fair amount about them.

These results told us that we needed to be clearer about how charities can collaborate with the NIHR. In response, we’ve published new guidance on charity collaboration and co-funding with NIHR research programmes.

The guidance outlines the two main ways that charities can collaborate with NIHR research programmes on individual research projects.

Firstly, charities can directly co-fund research projects with the NIHR, as part of an NIHR response mode or commissioned funding call in their area of interest.

NIHR response mode funding calls are generally not on specific disease topics and the research proposals are led by researchers. As such, a charity seeking to co-fund research needs to work with a researcher and support their application to the NIHR. Charities should also approach the NIHR at the earliest opportunity to discuss their interest in the research proposal.

NIHR commissioned calls issued to address specific research priorities, such as organ donation and dental health. Likewise, a charity seeking to co-fund research for a commissioned call needs to work with a researcher in the first instance on a relevant research proposal.

Some principles apply when it comes to a charity co-funding with the NIHR, which are set out in the guidance. One of them is that applications for co-funded research proposals are assessed in open competition, via standard NIHR processes, and will generally undergo full peer review and assessment by an NIHR funding committee.

The second way in which a charity may be able to collaborate with NIHR research programmes is by applying for and directly receiving research funding from the NIHR.

Charities can receive NIHR funding directly, as co-applicants on research projects. Charities may also receive funding as lead applicants on projects where the charity has expertise to deliver the research, or where the charity is recognised as an NHS service provider, such as NHS hospital charities.

Of course, it’s important to mention that the NIHR welcomes partnerships with charities in activities across the research pathway, from the identification of research priorities, through commissioning and delivery of research and to dissemination of outputs. We’re also keen to work with charities to share best practice in research and improve the quality and consistency of patient and public involvement in research.

We’re currently developing our offer and messaging around the various ways in which charities can engage with us, and are looking forward to sharing and testing this work with you later on.

Going forward, we’ll be seeking to set up more collaborations between charities and our research projects and programmes. We believe that this new guidance about charity collaboration on NIHR research projects is an important first step.

Please contact us on [email protected] for more details on opportunities for wider collaboration and partnership with the NIHR.