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Health systems research initiative call 3

Please note this opportunity is now CLOSED.
View all OPEN opportunities

  • Status: Closed
  • Open date: 4 Nov 2015
  • Closing date: 28 Jan 2016 16:00 GMT
  • Type: Grants, MRC strategic



Providing Evidence to Strengthen Health Systems in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs)


The Department of International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Medical Research Centre and the Wellcome Trust (WT) jointly fund the Health Systems Research Initiative. All funders are committed to funding world-class research with high potential for impact on policy and practice.

Launched in 2013, this £15 million programme will generate world class and cutting-edge research that addresses key questions on strengthening and improving health systems in developing countries.  The programme’s aims are to fund rigorous, high quality research that will:

  1. Generate evidence on how to strengthen and improve health systems for people living in low- and middle-income countries

  2. Use a health systems approach to inform the delivery of evidence-based interventions or structural changes i.e proposals must demonstrate how interventions relate to and effect wider elements of a health system such as governance, financing, health workforce, information systems, service delivery etc.

  3. Provide evidence that is of direct relevance to decision makers and users in the field.

This is the third annual call for the Health Systems Research Initiative. Up to £5million is available for proposals to this call.  Innovative proposals are sought from across the public health, social and biomedical sciences and must clarify what health system challenge is being addressed and how the research question, and proposed work, addresses that challenge.  Proposals should clearly describe how and why the findings of the project have the potential to improve the health of people living in low and middle-income countries.

Funding is available for research only and no particular diseases or health-related problems are prioritised for this call. We will not fund the routine delivery of health services. The funders expect that applicants will have identified at the application stage the health service partner which will provide any routine health service delivery relevant to the project.

Applicants are invited to apply for:

Research Grants: 

(Applications for research grants will be subject to a 2 stage review process. Only those successful at the outline stage will be invited to submit a full application and final funding decisions will be made in October 2016). The duration of a research grant is usually up to 3 years, with a maximum duration of 5 years. Small and larger-scale projects are invited.  As a guide, applicants should note there is approx. £4m available for Research Grants under this call. Funders would like to fund 5-10 projects.  

Development grants:

(Applications for Development Grants will be reviewed at the March 2016 panel meeting following which funding decisions will be announced). The duration of development grants is between 12-18 months, with a maximum budget of £100k each. The purpose of a development grant is to conduct preliminary studies needed before a Research Grant proposal can be designed. This can include work to evaluate existing interventions in order to inform plans for a future research grant. Recipients of development grants will not automatically progress to full-scale research projects after their development grant has ended. They will be expected to apply for a full-scale research project through an open competition.

UK-based researchers will be funded at 74 per cent full economic costs (FEC) whilst non-UK researchers will receive 100 per cent of the direct costs of the research, plus a variable overhead.

The deadline for applications 4pm GMT Thursday 28th January 2016

Background and Scope

Each of the four funders has a strong history in supporting research that aims to improve health policy and systems for people living in low and middle income countries. There is growing recognition that the challenges confronting health systems in developing countries transcend disciplinary boundaries, highlighting the urgent need for research to foster genuine interdisciplinary collaborations across social science, biomedical science, and other disciplines to address these complex challenges. For this reason, the funders have pooled resources in this joint initiative, to fund excellent scientific research which has the potential to deliver high impact for policy and practice.

For decades health systems in developing countries have come under sustained pressure from interlocking social, political and economic influences; ranging from rapid globalisation, evolving disease burdens, natural disasters, fragile governments and governance systems; weak institutions and poor accountability, all of which create and exacerbate widespread socioeconomic and health inequalities. Recognising that health systems are complex and multidimensional, this scheme is intended to fund research addressing a broad range of health systems research questions and topics. We welcome research that addresses a range of health systems research including but not limited to questions of governance, institutions, health workforce; financing; private sector, civil society, information systems; products and technologies, service delivery and so on.

Research funded through this call can engage with the contextual dynamics that shape and/or undermine effective health systems in developing countries, (e.g. social, economic, political and cultural influences and pressures) but the research must offer practical solutions to implement health care improvements. Projects are strongly encouraged to address ethical, economic, social, cultural, governance and political considerations of the problem, where appropriate, and all projects should focus on the impacts on the most vulnerable populations within low and middle income countries. No particular diseases or health-related problems are prioritised for this call.

Projects should clearly identify and address the key barriers to implementation and uptake of evidence-based interventions at local and national levels, paving the way for their successful adoption into routine practice with improved access and use by the populations in need.

Given the programme’s aims we strongly encourage applications from multidisciplinary teams that comprise a blend of research skills and expertise from public health, biomedical and social scientists. The funders welcome applications from social scientists working in health policy, psychology, anthropology, geography, sociology, economics and/ or the political economy.  Definitions of social science disciplines are available from ESRCs disciplines classifications webpage.

All research funded must demonstrate clear relevance to decision-makers and practitioners in the field. Non-academic stakeholders, including potential users of the research, are expected to be included and involved in the design and delivery of projects. See the ‘International dimension and partnership/ collaborative relationships’ section below for further information.

Applicants must identify the potential impacts of their research on policy and practice, and must actively consider how these can be maximised and developed. Proposals must offer practical, implementable findings.

Call details

The funders recognise the need for a new research approach to effectively respond to the complex health systems challenges low and middle income countries face in the post-MDG era. This may involve researchers from different academic disciplines bringing together their perspectives, approaches and expertise, or unite social scientists with those working within the physical, biomedical and public health sciences or other disciplines. A key requirement is that applicants demonstrate a clear and strong rationale for how their proposed research, and the approach taken, meets the criteria for world-class and cutting-edge policy-relevant research addressing key questions on strengthening health systems in low and middle income countries.

Methodologies must be clearly explained and well justified as methodological rigour is an important aspect of peer review. The panel will take a broad view of appropriate methodologies proposed to conduct systems based research. Applicants must ensure that the proposed methodology is appropriate to addressing their research questions.

If your methodology is an RCT, please contact Meriel.flint@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk to discuss the eligibility of your study for this scheme. While RCT’s are accepted it will be important to demonstrate how your proposed work is embedded in and relates to the wider health system in the proposed context. Applicants should note that the MRC, DFID and the Wellcome Trust currently fund a scheme for randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in LMICs. For further information or visit the webpage for this scheme.


International dimension and partnership/collaborative relationships

Underpinning the programme and all funded projects must be a strong research ethic based on mutual respect and understanding for different cultural, ethnic, social and economic beliefs and practices. Solutions to strengthening health systems in developing countries must be rooted in, and acceptable to, the institutions, communities and societies where they will operate.

Projects with Principal Investigators (P-Is) from LMICs are strongly encouraged and all proposals must include Co-Investigators from the LMIC in which the research is taking place. Principal investigators can be based in the UK or any LMIC.  Funding is not dependent on the involvement of a UK-based research organisation.

The programme allows academics from developing and developed countries to work together in partnerships that build on existing relationships or represent the development of a new collaborative relationship. The intellectual challenge should be the determining factor when configuring appropriate partnerships and collaborations. Proposals must demonstrate meaningful quality collaborations or partnerships, demonstrated through clear leadership roles across the proposed partnership, and balance and proportionality in partners’ roles and responsibilities.

Please note the Principal Investigator must be from the UK or an LMIC country. Co-investigators from any eligible institution can be included.

We expect non-academic stakeholders, including potential research users and intermediary organisations with a mandate to communicate research that are listed in the proposal, to be included and involved in both the early design and on-going conduct of research projects. There is recognition that the exploitation of new knowledge does not just occur at the end of a research project, but rather is embedded throughout the research process itself. The commissioning panel will consider the plans for involvement of non-academic stakeholders in the research process.

Research impact

We expect researchers funded under the programme to have identified the potential impacts of their research on policy and practice, and to actively consider how these can be maximised and developed. This emphasis on research impact will be reflected within the assessment process and will be taken into account by the commissioning panel.

A key component of this research programme is to build evidence within government systems.  It is expected that researchers will already have engaged with key stakeholders in the research countries when developing the proposal.

Researchers are encouraged to be innovative in the kinds of user engagement, knowledge exchange, communications and research uptake activities they plan to undertake during and beyond the period of research funding. It is important that applicants appreciate that outreach and engagement activities in themselves do not constitute impact. The development of a clear impact strategy will be important to ensuring research impact is achieved. When completing the impact summary section of the form, applicants may find it helpful to refer to guidance on developing an impact strategy and to explore the potential impacts of your research and incorporate these considerations into your proposal. (Research Councils UK Pathways to Impact toolkit and DFID’s Research Uptake Guidance.

Geographical scope

Priority will be given to research that benefits the most vulnerable populations and/or those in poorly resourced settings. Whilst the funders recognise that many of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries, it is a specific objective of this programme to increase the body of research that is specifically relevant to low-income countries. The funders aim for a significant majority of research projects within the portfolio to focus on low-income countries. For a full list of the countries that fall under the categories of low and middle income countries please refer to the OECD DAC list of ODA recipients.


The programme is open to researchers based in higher education institutions, research organisations or other organisations with a credible research capacity. Researchers may be based in either UK or LMIC based organisations with demonstrable research capacity. Principal Investigators (P-Is) must be employed by an eligible institution either in a low and middle income country, or in the UK. 

All grants will be awarded to the institution of the principal investigator, and this institution will be responsible for the proper disbursement and accountability of all monies received. In order to be eligible to hold Research Council grants, institutions must be recognised as meeting specific criteria relating to mandate, research infrastructure, governance and accountability. Most UK higher education institutions and some other independent UK research organisations are already recognised institutions, and hence are eligible to apply for, and hold, Research Council grants.

Most non-UK institutions and some UK organisations will not currently be recognised to hold UK Research Council grants. Lead institutions which are not recognised to hold UK Research Council grants will have to obtain Research Council recognition before any grant can be confirmed. In order to minimise administrative burdens and costs to both applicants and RCS staff, formal recognition will only be pursued if the grant is successful.

RCUK provide further information on eligibility for research funding on their website.

If you are unsure about your organisation’s eligibility, please consult the programme contact: mandy.brown@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk


Research capacity building

All funders are committed to supporting capacity building in research.  However we are not seeking to fund capacity-building per se through this programme because the sponsors are funding capacity-building activities through other mechanisms. However, we expect as a minimum that all proposals identify capacity-building activities as part of, and not separate to, the stated research approach. Applicants are encouraged to consider the diversity of opportunities and contexts for capacity-building within their proposed research.

If the Principal Investigator (PI) is based in the UK, there must be clear partnership with, and scientific leadership from, co-investigators (Co-Is) based in the countries where the project will take place.

Capacity-building elements should be set out in relation to the core intellectual agenda of the research proposal and not treated separately; the focus should be on the quality and impact of the research, and how increasing research capacity contributes to this.

Good examples of capacity-building include co-design of research and implementation, field-based research methods training for developing country partner staff, and opportunities for developing country partner staff to author/co-author journal and conference papers and participate in national and international conferences. Support and mentoring for more junior team members may also contribute importantly to building future research capacity. Successful proposals will also demonstrate a strong understanding of the local research context and ensure the research programme does not undermine local research capacity. These factors will be taken into account by the commissioning panel.

How to apply  

Proposals must be submitted to Je-S by the call deadline 4pm GMT Thursday 28th January 2016. Electronic acknowledgements will be sent to the principal investigator and submitting organisation.

Full details on how to apply to this scheme is in the scheme specific guidance on the MRC website.

All proposals must be submitted on the official Je-S proposal using the Research Councils Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system. NB: Proposals can only be accepted by electronic submission through the Je-S system.

Outline Proposals must be submitted via the Je-S system by 4pm GMT on Thursday 28th January 2016.

Contact details

For queries about how to apply to this funding scheme, please contact: 

Cally Walker Global Health Funding Officer Cally.Walker@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk

If you have any technical issues with the Je-S system please contact Je-S help desk at JeSHelp@je-s.ukri.org. Full guidance on using this system can be found in the Je-S handbook.


Development Grant funding decisions made: April 2016

Invitations to submit full proposals issued: 

April 2016
Deadline to submit full proposals:  June 2016
PI response to reviewer comments:  September 2016
Full stage panel meeting:  October 2016