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Understanding the mechanistic links between nutrition and non-communicable diseases in low and middle-income countries

Please note this opportunity is now CLOSED.
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We are pleased to announce the GCRF funding call: 'Understanding the mechanistic links between nutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in low and middle-income countries (LMICs)' as part of the MRC’s suite of strategic activities in global nutrition and health research.

The overarching aim of the call is to develop new programmes of research and partnerships between UK and LMIC-based researchers. The purpose of the research is to link mechanistic understanding of disease to populations in a context-specific manner (that is, a focus on problems and health challenges that are specific to LMIC countries or regions within, LMIC populations or segments of the population). The specific remit is to unpick the mechanistic links between nutrition/diet and NCDs (see detailed Aims and remit below).

To support the research community in developing new and innovative research plans - including coordinating interest, data, expertise and resources - towards building equitable partnerships for more substantial programmatic research. The funding call will be phased in two stages: an obligatory development stage and a full application stage. Successful applicants at the development stage will be awarded funds (£50,000 maximum MRC contribution for up to 10 months, see application process) to develop full applications for new programmes of research with a duration of three to five years (up to £2 million MRC contribution, this figure is subject to confirmation at the full application stage). Only proposals successful at the development stage will be eligible for the full application stage.

Please note that more established groups and partnerships that may already be well placed to apply for competitive funding should consider applying to research funding in response-mode through the MRC’s Population and Systems Medicine Board.

The research supported through this call will contribute to the UK’s commitment to Official Development Assistance (ODA) to LMICs. Applications must demonstrate the research to be primarily relevant to near-term or long-term benefits to the health or prosperity of people in LMICs.

Aims and remit

NCDs are a major threat to sustainable development, with more than three quarters of NCD-related deaths occurring in LMICs. The UN has identified “reducing premature non-communicable disease mortality by a third by 2030” as a target under the sustainable development goals, and one of the objectives of the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs is “to reduce modifiable risk factors for noncommunicable diseases and underlying social determinants through creation of health-promoting environments”.

Unhealthy diets are amongst the major modifiable risk factors for NCDs. Under this funding call, research programmes should aim to generate robust mechanistic evidence (for example molecular, cellular, physiological) for the role of nutrition and diet in the susceptibility, prevalence, and clinical manifestations of NCDs – and the variable role of these mechanisms alongside other risk factors, and across populations, environments and other contexts.

The research outcomes should have clear potential to inform future research agenda and policy, for example, providing robust evidence for nutritional interventions specific to the population(s) being studied, or paving the way for research into the upstream determinants of nutrition and diet-related risk factors.

Research and scope

Research questions should unpick the mechanistic links (molecular, cellular, physiological) between nutrition and NCDs, relevant to one or more LMIC settings. Approaches should ideally combine epidemiological, population health and biochemical/molecular methods and should seek to engage an appropriate range of disciplines, as necessary. Proposals may build on existing observations (for example epidemiological studies of NCD prevalence, outcomes of nutritional interventions), and, whenever possible, capitalise on, enrich or re-purpose existing resources and initiatives (for example add or expand data/sample collection in population studies, nested mechanistic studies within interventions).

Projects should seek to provide an understanding of the mechanistic links between nutrition and NCDs, to understand how nutrition and diet influence NCDs at the molecular cellular and physiological levels. Subject areas may include, but are not limited to:

  • variable responses to nutrition and diet-related risk factors - influenced by genetics, development, environment, infection and other contextual factors
  • understanding disease heterogeneity with respect to nutrition-related risk factors, disease phenotypes and clinical manifestations and their interactions with genetic and epigenetic factors
  • micronutrient deficiencies
  • double burden of malnutrition, for example as a consequence of epidemiological transitions and changes in dietary patterns (such as westernisation of diets, rural-urban, south-south or south-north migration)
  •  influence of early life nutrition and diet/genetic bases of NCD susceptibility through the lifecourse.

Research teams and partnerships

Research teams will be expected to forge partnerships between relevant disciplines as well as researchers, non-governmental organisations, and the private sector in LMICs, as appropriate. Bringing in expertise and researchers not traditionally associated with nutrition research is particularly encouraged.

The lead applicant must be based at a UK higher education institution, MRC units and institutes, or at an eligible independent research institution and all funding is to be managed through that organisation. Researchers based in institutions in LMICs are eligible to apply as co-investigators (co-Is) or collaborators and not as the lead applicant. LMIC co-Is may be based at higher education institutions, non-profit research institutions or non-governmental organisations.

There must be clear evidence of equitable partnerships with, and scientific leadership from, co-Is based in the countries where the project will take place. Proposals should take into account how capacity building for junior UK and developing country staff will lead to developing future scientific leadership, particularly within LMICs. Plans should be put in place to ensure continued partnership and development beyond the duration of the proposed work.

To enable equitable partnerships, as well as to optimise research plans and ensure that these are informed by the specific needs of the participating LMIC(s), the developmental stage applications should already include the key partners. It is expected that LMIC-based researchers are co-Is at the development phase, but additional partners (co-Is or collaborators) can be included at the full application stage (see Application process for details).

Relevance to Official Development Assistance

Applications must clearly demonstrate how the research is primarily relevant to LMICs, to ensure that the proposed plan is informed by the needs of affected populations. Further guidance on ODA compliance is available via the UKRI GCRF webpages, in particular UKRI ODA guidance. A list of eligible countries can be found on the OECD website.

UK investigators should demonstrate an understanding of the national and local context, and work harmoniously and effectively with local stakeholders to ensure the research programme does not undermine local research capacity. These factors will be considered in the assessment of the application.

Application process

The funding call will be phased to have a development stage and a full application stage.

Applications for the development stage

At the development stage, applications must: (i) lay out the research questions, justify their context-specificity and primary relevance to the affected populations, propose experimental approaches and provide an indicative resource request for the full bid; (ii) detail the partnership building and bid-development activities that will take place at the development stage. Guidance for development stage applications is provided on this page.

Successful applications will receive development stage awards (up to £50,000 MRC contribution, for up to 10 months). These funds would cover the period from the beginning of the development award until the expected start date of the full stage award. So, for successful applicants, the full stage award can follow through the developmental stage. This funding will enable teams to better develop their research questions, strengthen the contributions from each of the partners, or engage new partners, map and/or collate existing preliminary evidence and data sources (see eligible costs). We expect that teams and research plans will continue to be developed between the outline and full stages, and that supported proposals will need to maintain research flexibility, to refine plans in response to emergent findings. Development stage awards will need to start in July 2019.

Applications for the development stage must follow the guidance provided and be submitted via the Joint electronic-submission (Je-S). The closing date for development stage applications is 4 April 2019.

Applications for the full stage

Recipients of development stage awards will be invited to submit full applications. Funds will be available to support three to five-year research projects. Full stage awards are expected to start by April/May 2020.

Eligible costs

Costs for UK-based activities should be requested at 80% Full Economic Costing (FEC). Certain ‘exceptional’ costs for LMIC partners can be requested at 100% FEC. Please see MRC guidance for applicants sections 3.1 and 3.3

Under the development awards, funding can be used to support: 

  • networking meetings and other events to develop full proposals, strengthen or establish new partnerships (including travel and accommodation expenses)
  • salary of staff to coordinate activities, conduct literature reviews, data analysis or other research landscaping activities.

Note: The funding is not intended to support the continuation of normal research grants. 

Assessment of development stage applications

At the development stage, applications will be assessed by an expert panel. The panel will make funding decisions on development stage funding, invite full proposals and provide feedback on the development of the full proposals. The panel decisions are final and there will be no opportunity to respond to the feedback, other than through changes integrated within invited full proposals.

The panel meeting for the assessment of development stage applications will take place in June 2019.


The lead applicant must be based at a UK higher education institution or at an eligible independent research institution (including all MRC units and institutes) and all funding is to be managed through that organisation. Researchers based in institutions in LMICs are eligible to apply as co-Is or collaborators only and not as the lead applicant. LMIC co-Is may be based at higher education institutions, non-profit research institutions or non-governmental organisations.

We welcome industrial collaborators but note that they cannot be recipients of funding. The role of industrial partners must be clearly explained, with special emphasis on the benefit to LMICs. A letter of support from the industrial partner must be included in the development stage proposals.

Key dates



Call launch

29 January 2019

Applications for development stage open

29 January 2019

Deadline for development stage

4 April 2019

Shortlisting panel for development stage  

June 2019

Latest start date for development stage awards

July 2019

Deadline for submission for full proposals

December 2019/January 2020

Funding decision for full proposals

March 2020

Latest start date full awards

April/May 2020


If you have any queries, please contact: nutritionandglobalhealth@mrc.ukri.org

Other UKRI opportunities

Applicants may be interested in other UKRI-wide opportunities in global nutrition.

AHRC is running the funding call 'GCRF - Cultures, Behaviours and Histories of Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition' to support the development of research partnerships focused on the intersection of culture, history, and society with all stages of the food systems chain, from production through to consumption and policy.

BBSRC is running the funding call 'A Combined Food Systems Approach to Scaling-up Interventions to Address the Double Burden of Malnutrition' to consolidate existing evidence and synthesise new evidence for sustainable, multidisciplinary approaches that address the challenge of chronic global malnutrition. This will encompass both under-nutrition (too few calories) and over-nutrition (too many calories), both of which are associated with inadequate micronutrient intakes, otherwise known as the ‘double burden of malnutrition’.