£35 million investment to improve population-wide health

People walking to work

A new network has been established to bring together researchers from across the UK to boost research into sustainable and equitable population health improvement.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has established Population Health Improvement UK (PHI-UK) with a £35 million investment over four years, bringing together expertise and insight from across research, public health and community organisations.

Its aim is to find innovative and inclusive ways to improve the health of people, places and communities and reduce health inequalities through the development and evaluation of long-lasting and environmentally sustainable interventions.

Priority research areas include:

  • creating healthy urban spaces
  • supporting mental health and wellbeing
  • understanding and addressing the negative health effects of commercial products and practices
  • enhancing our modelling capabilities to address urgent policy and economic challenges

Improving healthy life

The health of populations is influenced by a complex interplay of individual, community, economic and societal factors. Despite the many gains of healthcare in recent years, physical and mental health challenges persist, with large differences in life expectancy and, for many people, years of life spent in ill health.

As well as the personal costs, these health challenges undermine economic prosperity and threaten unsustainable pressure on our health services. This underlines the need to act to create places and communities that can protect and sustain healthy lives for decades to come.

Creative and radical approaches

On behalf of UKRI, Professor Patrick Chinnery, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council, said:

This new national research network will deliver a deep understanding of the mechanisms linking diverse risk factors to common diseases, accelerating the development of interventions.

This will improve health and reduce health inequalities through creative and radical approaches.

The £35 million investment is a major component of UKRI’s Securing Better Health, Ageing and Wellbeing strategic theme, which targets a priority challenge through a portfolio of related investments which leverage research disciplines across UKRI.

Professor Nick Wareham, newly appointed Director of the network said:

The establishment of PHI-UK is an important step for UKRI as it enables multi-disciplinary research across the UK aimed at improving health and reducing inequalities.

Our intention is to develop PHI-UK as a growing, dynamic and integrated national community of population health researchers, developing new themes and connecting the network to existing strengths in the UK.

Interconnected research themes

Each of the initial themes within PHI-UK will be addressing separate but complementary challenges. The goal is to create a holistic picture of the various influences on health and wellbeing, in order to develop and evaluate innovative and impactful interventions at the population level. PHI-UK will pursue a systems approach to health improvement, one that:

  • considers all the interacting parts of how the complex modern world affects our health
  • is driven by data and evidence
  • has an inclusive approach to incorporating different perspectives from across society

Further information

The initial themes, operationalised through investments in four research clusters, are as follows:

Population mental health

One in six adults in England have a mental health condition, and mental distress and ill health are associated with significant disability, sickness absence, unemployment and suicide attempts. This research theme will create new opportunities for population-based improvements in mental health across the country, focusing on children and young people, suicide and self-harm prevention and multiple long-term conditions.

The theme includes researchers at:

  • King’s College London
  • University College London
  • Middlesex University
  • Swansea University
  • Ulster University
  • The University of Manchester
  • Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS and Applied Research Collaboration West Midlands

It will also work closely with stakeholders across public health, local government and voluntary organisations and people with lived experience of adversities which impact mental health.

It will include partnerships with Thrive LDN, and other organisations. This will allow for the identification and evaluation of population-level interventions which hold the greatest promise for the improvement of mental health, and bring benefits through the development of practice-based evidence and concerted knowledge exchange.


Dr Jayati Das-Munshi, King’s College London


Dan Barrett, Thrive LDN

Deputy Director

Professor Matthew Hotopf, King’s College London

Healthy urban places

There are key aspects of where and how you live that affect people’s health. Even within a single city life expectancy can vary dramatically.

This research theme will examine how population health is affected by features of the urban environment such as:

  • walkability
  • air quality
  • housing
  • public transport
  • access to schools
  • parks
  • social and community assets
  • healthy food
  • health services

Its aim is to influence decisions that can make cities healthier and happier places to live.

The theme is a partnership between:

  • the Bradford Institute for Health Research based at Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • University College London
  • the University of Liverpool
  • the University of York
  • the University of Leeds
  • the University of Bradford
  • Imperial College London
  • the Bradford Council Health Determinants Research Collaboration
  • Barcelona Institute for Global Health

It will involve local communities and decision-makers working with partners in Bradford and Liverpool and will harness existing major research initiatives including the Born in Bradford and Children Growing Up in Liverpool cohorts.


Professor Rosie McEachan, Bradford Institute for Health Research

Deputy Directors

Professor Laura Vaughan, Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London

Professor John Wright, Bradford Institute for Health Research

Commercial determinants of health and equity

One of the influences on health that remains poorly understood at local level is the commercial sector, despite growing evidence of its major impacts on health and equity. While local businesses create jobs and contribute to the economy and health in positive ways, certain commercial actors have a disproportionate impact on population health. Approximately 40% of chronic disease deaths globally are directly linked to just four products manufactured by transnational corporations manufacturing:

  • tobacco
  • ultra-processed foods
  • alcohol
  • fossil fuels

In parallel, representatives of these sectors frequently oppose interventions that local governments could implement.

This theme brings together researchers at:

  • the University of Bath
  • the University of Cambridge
  • The University of Edinburgh
  • The University of Sheffield
  • London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine


  • local governments
  • local populations
  • public health practitioners, including the Association of Directors of Public Health and civil society groups

Together, they aim to understand the building blocks, including the commercial factors, that impact on communities’ health.

Taking a systems approach, it will use that knowledge to identify, implement and evaluate the population-level interventions most likely to improve health, wellbeing and equity at scale. It will also work specifically to explore and address the barriers to implementing interventions.


Professor Anna Gilmore, University of Bath

Deputy Directors

Dr Eleonora Fichera, University of Bath

Dr Nason Maani, The University of Edinburgh

Enhancing policy modelling

The way policymakers tackle, or fail to tackle, the UK’s urgent economic challenges will either worsen or improve health inequalities. The economic challenges include:

  • economic policies in response to the climate emergency
  • population aging
  • technological revolution

This theme will develop computer models to show how tax, welfare, pensions and inheritance policies might affect health inequality outcomes to help policymakers understand their impacts on people in their area. Through citizen, policy and advocacy engagement it will incorporate wide-ranging insights into these models to make sure they:

  • answer the most pressing questions
  • inform real world decisions
  • are relevant and inclusive across different groups in society

The theme is a collaboration between:

  • the University of Glasgow
  • the University of Strathclyde
  • the University of Leeds
  • The University of Sheffield
  • the University of Essex
  • the University of Birmingham
  • Greater Manchester Combined Authority
  • West Midlands Combined Authority
  • Glasgow City Region
  • Public Health Scotland
  • other local and national government departments and agencies, charities and citizens’ groups


Professor Petra Meier, University of Glasgow

Find out more

For further information about PHI-UK, please contact: phiuk@mrc-epid.cam.ac.uk

Top image:  Credit: Orbon Alija, iStock, Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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