Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Population and public health sciences

The aim of this programme is to support and advance the study of biological, social and environmental influences on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of populations, and the development of interventions designed to improve population health or prevent diseases.

Budget:
about £80 million per year
Duration:
ongoing
Partners involved:
Medical Research Council (MRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The Medical Research Council’s (MRC) population health sciences programme embraces the study of biological, social and environmental influences on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of populations.

A key aim of population health research is to understand how and why health and wellbeing varies within and between populations and across the life course, and how the health of the public can be improved through clinical or public health interventions.

The public sector funding responsibility for population science and public health is shared between UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the health departments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

We lead on discovery work in population health sciences and all aspects of global public health research, with the health departments responsible for more applied public health research in the UK.

The science we support

Our investments include epidemiological studies including population cohorts, prevention research, methodology, intervention development, infrastructure informatics and global public health. We fund applied public health research through multi-funded partnerships and in MRC units and centres.

Cohorts

For more than 50 years, MRC has funded a diverse range of population cohorts that have provided important insights into the determinants of health, wellbeing and disease. They have also contributed to public health policy and changes in clinical practice. To maximise the value of these studies, it is important to gain a comprehensive understanding of how they fit into the context of the wider UK population cohort landscape.

We have carried out a review of the largest UK population cohort studies to document the current investment in these cohorts and to model how the studies will develop over the next 10 years. A total of 34 cohorts were included, 19 of which we either partly or fully funded. MRC funding accounts for just under £10 million of the total combined annual spend on these cohorts of £27.6 million. They span the whole life course from birth to 100 years of age, and together contain 2.2 million participants.

Read the strategic review: Maximising the value of UK population cohorts.

The largest investment in cohorts in the UK goes to the UK Biobank, a major national resource for health research with the aim of improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, eye disorders, depression and forms of dementia.

Funded primarily by MRC and the Wellcome Trust, UK Biobank recruited 500,000 people aged between 40 and 69 years between 2006 and 2010 from across the country to take part in this project. They have undergone measures, provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, detailed information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed.

This is developing into a powerful resource to help scientists discover why some people develop particular diseases and others do not.

UK Prevention Research Partnership

An alliance of research funders have agreed to commit £50 million to support research into the primary prevention of non-communicable diseases. The vision is to generate new insights into actionable, sustainable and cost-effective ways of preventing non-communicable diseases that will improve population health and reduce health inequalities in the UK.

The research should address the upstream determinants of non-communicable diseases and be produced together with users such as policymakers, practitioners, health providers, the third sector and the public. The upstream determinants include, but are not limited to:

  • the built and natural environment
  • employment
  • education
  • welfare
  • transport
  • health and social care, and communication systems
  • the policies of local and central government and of commercial enterprises.

The UK Prevention Research Partnership is a new model of public health funding in the UK that seeks to:

  • build and support interdisciplinary research teams to develop, implement and evaluate preventive policies, practices, designs and interventions which will enable change within complex adaptive systems to prevent non-communicable diseases
  • deliver solutions for large-scale and cost-effective improvements in health and the prevention of non-communicable diseases that meet the needs of providers and policymakers and are responsive to the challenging timescales of policymaking.

Units and centres

The MRC supports the following units and centres, which study the various determinants of population health:

  • MRC-Chief Scientist Office (CSO) Social and Public Health Science Unit, University of Glasgow
  • MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton
  • MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge
  • MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL
  • MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol
  • MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge
  • MRC Population Health Research Unit at the University of Oxford
  • MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Imperial College London
  • MRC-Public Health England (PHE) Centre for Environment and Health, Imperial College London and King’s College London.

The UKCRC Public Health Research Centres of Excellence and the Scottish collaboration for public health research and policy

For 10 years from 2008, partners in the UK clinical research collaboration provided £37 million for a network of six Public Health Research Centres of Excellence to increase infrastructure, build academic capacity in public health research in the UK, and provide a platform to engage with policy and practice.

A report on the legacy of these investments shows how 10 years of collaborative work by these centres, based in Edinburgh, Belfast, Newcastle, Nottingham, Cambridge and Cardiff, has exceeded expectations of what was thought possible back in 2008.

The centres have expanded the pool of early-career researchers and nurtured their talent while creating new opportunities to work across academia, policy and practice. Researchers have gone on to expand their networks and advance their careers, securing fellowships and lectureships, winning awards and promotion. The centres have been a strong magnet for leveraging significant additional funding to increase the volume and quality of public health research.

How we fund population health sciences

We fund population health sciences through boards and panels, centres and units, various fellowships and multi-funder partnerships such as the UK Prevention Research Partnership and UK Biobank. We also support public health sciences in a global context including through our units in Africa. We support interventions development for public health, in both the UK and globally, through MRC’s public health intervention development scheme.

Public health intervention development scheme

Funders and policymakers need to be confident that a proposed intervention is relevant, has an appropriate design and is based on reliable evidence from early developmental studies. MRC’s public health intervention development scheme provides support for early phase development of public health interventions up to, but not including, the pilot phase. It complements funding available from the National Institute for Health Research, MRC global health and other sources for subsequent stages of public health intervention development and evaluation.

Boards and panels

Population health research is funded across our boards and panels. Applications within the remit of our boards and panels can be submitted at any time:

Population Research UK

The UK’s longitudinal population studies are invaluable resources that researchers can use to address many of society’s biggest challenges. A new resource known as Population Research UK (PRUK) will ensure that the full potential of longitudinal population studies is realised by addressing long-standing issues around data discoverability, access, linkage, and cross-discipline collaboration.

During 2021, MRC, Economic and Social Research Council and Wellcome commissioned Health Data Research UK (HDRUK) to undertake extensive consultation to put longitudinal population studies leads and their data users at the centre of a specification for how PRUK could work alongside and collaborate with existing research initiatives and infrastructures. The result is a prospectus that sets out recommendations for delivering this new initiative.

See the PRUK prospectus on the HDRUK website.

Further work is under way in 2022 to prepare the ground for a call to identify a multidisciplinary leadership team for PRUK. The mission of this team will be to motivate and coordinate across a diverse set of stakeholders to maximise the use, innovation and benefit from the UK’s rich collection of longitudinal population studies across social and economic, and biomedical science.

Population health cohorts

MRC considers applications for new cohorts and sweeps of existing studies. Applications for longitudinal population health studies based on cohorts should be first submitted as outlines to the Longitudinal Population Studies Strategic Advisory Panel.

Fellowships

MRC fellowships provide outstanding scientists with exceptional opportunities to develop their careers, by concentrating on challenging research and gaining the broader experience that is essential to a future leadership role.

MRC’s fellowships can support the development of talented individuals to strengthen the UK population health research base.

 

Opportunities, support and resources available

Funding opportunities

There are no current funding opportunities open. Proposed future funding opportunities include:

  • research in adolescence including on mental health
  • prevention of non-communicable diseases through upstream social and environmental determinants
  • data science for population health.

Reviews and reports

The UK supports an unparalleled number and variety of large-scale population cohort studies. These provide a rich source of longitudinal phenotypic, biological and social data that can be used for studying health and wellbeing throughout the life course. The ability to link to health and other routine records, collect data and samples from consenting participants and apply cutting-edge imaging and omics technologies, places the UK in an ideal position to fully capitalise on these major research assets.

Cohort Directory

The cohort directory is a searchable tool of UK population cohorts. The aim of the directory is to signpost users to individual cohorts to maximise the use and translation of findings of these valuable UK assets.

Data sharing policy

Data sharing policies are vital for enabling the greater use of valuable MRC funded resources. These need to ensure that data and biological samples are collected and preserved using appropriate standards, and that there are transparent and independent governance arrangements in place for access and sharing.

Working in partnership with the major funders, we have strengthened our policy on the access and governance of patient and population studies. We have also developed improved guidance for data management plans. This gives information on data collection, management, preservation, sharing and collaboration.

Read our policy and guidance on sharing of research data from population and patient studies.

Complex intervention guidance

We first published guidance on complex interventions in 2000 and updated this in 2008. A number of developments since 2008 means that is time to refresh this guidance again. Currently the MRC and Chief Scientist Office (CSO) social and public health sciences unit is coordinating the updating of this guidance document, which is being overseen by a multidisciplinary scientific advisory group. You can read about progress of the project on the MRC-CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit website.

Governance, management and panels

MRC Population Health Sciences Group

MRC’s strategy in this area is overseen by the MRC Population Health Sciences Group which carries out an annual analysis of MRC public health sciences portfolio.

MRC population and health sciences team

Members include:

  • Dr Catherine Moody, Head of Population Health
  • Dr Gavin Malloch, Programme Manager, Public Health Partnerships
  • Dr Elaine Boylan, Programme Manager, Population Health Sciences
  • Dr Katherine Dunne, Programme Manager, UK Prevention Research Partnership
  • Alexandra Winn, Science Manager, UK Prevention Research Partnership.

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