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PHIND: Systems based approaches to Public Health intervention development

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

  • Status: Closed
  • Open date: 11 Nov 2019
  • Closing date: 22 Jan 2020 16:00 GMT
  • Type: Grants, Researcher-led

A call for proposals


The MRC Public Health Intervention Development (PHIND) scheme was established in 2013 to support the early stages of development of interventions that address an important UK or global public health issue. The aim of the scheme is to generate the necessary evidence to underpin the later development and evaluation of novel public health interventions. The PHIND scheme complements funding available from NIHR, MRC Global Health Group and other sources for subsequent stages of public health intervention development and evaluation.

For some time, MRC have been seeking to encourage the embedding of systems thinking and systems science approaches in the development of population level interventions which address an important UK or global health issue. This call aims to encourage the incorporation of systems thinking in population-level intervention development research.

Remit and scope

We live in a complex world where health can be affected by numerous social, economic and environmental interactions. To address public health challenges, such as air pollution, domestic violence and alcohol-related harm, public health interventions have to operate in a landscape that involves a wide array of people, organisations, structures and relationships (ref 1). A systems approach is often used to understand and intervene in the ‘upstream’ causes of morbidity and mortality, e.g. the practices of the food industry, or access to ‘fast food’ outlets in relation to overweight and diabetes.

There is a growing recognition that systems thinking and taking a whole system approach, involving stakeholders from across the system, can help to ensure a more holistic approach to tackling public health issues. The involvement of stakeholders with knowledge and experience of existing interventions, the target population, and the delivery setting has the potential to maximise the acceptability, feasibility and quality of the intervention. In addition, co-production creates an element of ‘buy-in’ to the intervention and a sense of ownership amongst those involved in its development (ref 1, ref 2).

Systems thinking encourages people to look at the bigger picture, to consider how different actors and other components of a system as well as interventions operate together to influence public health (ref 1, ref 3), to consider the wider impacts of interventions across the whole system, intended and unanticipated, and to explore how the system adapts to an intervention over time. It is also important to consider other changes, for example, the occurrence of new developments which change the way the system works and the impact this may have; or when consequences of an intervention start to exert a new influence on the intervention itself, i.e. feedback loops (ref 1), which may have positive or negative outcomes.

This call seeks to:

  • encourage the development of innovative, novel and scalable interventions which address an important UK or global public health issue
  • support the development of population-level interventions
    • “Population” is defined as a group of individuals an intervention may take place within, for example, schools, prisons, or larger communities and regions
    • Examples of the focus of population-level interventions include transport, education, employment, leisure and the built environment

Proposals should address the early stage of development of new interventions. This can include qualitative and quantitative primary research and the development of theory and logic models; however, emphasis should be placed on developing the intervention. Co-production with relevant stakeholders is strongly encouraged.

Within the application, the following should be addressed:

  • Definition of the intervention
  • Specification of the form(s) and function(s) of the intervention
  • Identification of the individual components of the intervention and their inter-relationships

The creation of new interventions where active components of existing interventions are recombined to create a new intervention are allowed within the scope for this call.

Proposals should demonstrate a pathway to further development and evaluation of the proposed intervention and criteria for progression to the next stage of development should be detailed within the Case for Support.

Please refer to the 10 tips for writing a PHIND application (PDF 390KB), available in the Document Download section.

The following activities are not within the scope of this call:

  • NHS interventions
  • Interventions treating clinical conditions or improving health services delivery
  • Systematic reviews and meta-analyses
  • Standalone feasibility studies and pilot studies
  • The wholesale transfer of a proven intervention to a new context, setting or target population


Applicants can apply for up to £150K (MRC contribution), for a maximum of 18 months. Funds may be requested to support costs attributable to the study including investigator and research staff time, consumables, equipment and travel.

The usual MRC funding and eligibility rules apply. Please see Guidance for applicants for information regarding eligibility.

A limited amount (approximately 15%) of the overall cost could be allocated to some acceptability and feasibility research, towards the end of the grant, to help cement a collaboration or to underpin further work to help the case for a future grant application.

Assessment criteria and process

Applicants should consider carefully the following criteria which will be taken into account by the Expert Review Panel when assessing proposals:

  • The importance of the public health question and the need for an intervention to address the issue(s), taking account of the current landscape
  • The proposed approach including methodology, innovation and likelihood of the outcomes of the proposed study to fill a current gap in knowledge
  • The research team, research environment, stakeholder partners and user participation and engagement
  • How novel the intervention is and whether it brings together disciplines and actors that may not normally be involved in public health research
  • Impact:
    • Existence of clearly thought through and acceptable pathways to impact (ref 4)
    • Appropriate engagement plans with users and key stakeholders, such as policy makers, to accelerate impact
    • Appropriateness of communication and knowledge exchange plans

Applications will be assessed by an Expert Review Panel comprised of senior independent academics and public health research representatives. The panel will have close links with NIHR and MRC global health to ensure the public health relevance of the proposals and to increase the potential success of future applications for piloting and evaluative studies. The Expert Review Panel will feedback to all applicants.

Proposals which are outside the scope of the call will not be assessed by the Panel.

How to apply

Proposals for this call must be submitted through the Joint electronic-Submission (Je-S) system.

Please use the Guidance Document (DOCX 26KB) when preparing your application and case for support.

The application must consist of:

  • The Je-S Proposal Form
  • Case for Support (maximum 4 pages), plus one additional page for a statement addressing the remit of this call and one additional page for references. This must follow the structure in the Guidance Document (DOCX 26KB)
  • Justification of resources requested (maximum 500 words) - please upload as Technical Assessment attachment type
  • CV’s (maximum 1 page per applicant) CVs are only required for Principal Investigator, Co-Investigators and named researchers
  • Publications (maximum 1 page per applicant)
  • Pathways to Impact (maximum 250 words)
  • Joint letter of support from relevant stakeholders. Letters of support are not required from subcontractors

In addition, if applicable applicants can also attach:

Applicants may find the following guidance and examples helpful when preparing their application:

Intervention development and evaluation:

Systems thinking and systems approaches:

  • Rutter H (2017) The need for a complex systems model of evidence for public health. Lancet, 9;390(10112):2602-2604
  • Arnold RD and Wade JP (2015) A definition of systems thinking: a systems approach. Procedia Computer Science 44: 669-678.
  • Egan et al. (2019) NIHR SPHR Guidance on Systems Approaches to Local Public Health Evaluation. Part 1: Introducing systems thinking. London: National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research. https://sphr.nihr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/NIHR-SPHR-SYSTEM-GUIDANCE-PART-1-FINAL_SBnavy.pdf
  • Egan et al. (2019) NIHR SPHR Guidance on Systems Approaches to Local Public Health Evaluation. Part 2: What to consider when planning a systems evaluation. London: National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research. https://sphr.nihr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/NIHR-SPHR-SYSTEM-GUIDANCE-PART-2-v2-FINALSBnavy.pdf
  • Diez Roux A (2011) Complex systems thinking and current impasses in health disparities research. Am J Public Health, 101(9): 1627-1634.
  • Hawe et al. (2009) Theorising interventions as events in systems. Am J Community Psychology, 43 (3-4), 267-276.

Co-production of proposals and research:

Examples of population level interventions, funded by PHIND

Developing an area (street) based cash transfer scheme to promote healthy eating communities in areas of high deprivation (the FRESH Street Project)

Dr Clare Relton, University of Sheffield

This project aimed to address an issue of major strategic public health importance - how to create sustainable and healthy diets, eating behaviours and food systems in areas of high deprivation. The intervention was a health behaviour change financial incentive voucher scheme for specific areas with high deprivation levels and low fruit and vegetable and high processed food consumption. “Food Ladders”, a novel, evidence-based approach for creating household and community resilience by capitalising on the capacity of food to bring people together was developed through a series of research projects, including the FRESH Street Project.


Adaptation of the Good School Toolkit for reducing violence in secondary schools

Dr Karen Devries London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The goal of this proposal was to adapt the Good School Toolkit for use in Ugandan secondary schools to address the issue of violence against children and adolescents. The Toolkit is a complex behavioural intervention which takes a whole-school approach to support students, staff, administration and community members. The team received funding from the MRC to conduct a pilot trial, which is ongoing.


Submission deadline and panel date

Application forms must be submitted by 4pm on 22 January 2020. No late submissions will be accepted for assessment.

The Expert Review Panel meeting will take place approximately 8 weeks after the submission deadline.


To discuss your eligibility or any queries please contact the PHIND Secretariat at publichealth@mrc.ukri.org.


  1. Egan M et al. (2019) NIHR SPHR Guidance on Systems Approaches to Local Public Health Evaluation. Part 1: Introducing systems thinking. London: National Institute for Health Research School for Public Health Research
  2. Hawkins et al. (2017) Development of a framework for the co-production and prototyping of public health interventions. BMC Public Health
  3. Arnold RD and Wade JP (2015) A definition of systems thinking: a systems approach. Procedia Computer Science 44: 669
  4. https://www.ukri.org/innovation/excellence-with-impact/pathways-to-impact/