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.

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

The scope and what we're doing

The Medical Research Council’s 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 and public health research 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 and NIHR 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.


For more than 50 years, MRC has funded a diverse range of population cohorts for longitudinal population studies 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
  • 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 cohort directory is a list of UK population cohorts. The directory aims to signpost users to individual cohorts to maximise the use and translation of findings of these valuable UK assets.

UK Biobank

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
  • 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 DNA sequencing, provided blood, urine and saliva samples for future analysis, supplied 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.

The UK Biobank imaging project aims to collect brain, heart, and abdomen scans from 100,000 participants. Performing imaging at this scale is unprecedented and will allow researchers to identify associations between lifestyle, genetic factors, imaging-derived phenotypes and how these affect disease risk.

Population Research UK

Population Research UK (PRUK) is a new resource that will ensure that the full potential of longitudinal population studies is realised by addressing long-standing issues around:

  • data discoverability
  • access
  • linkage
  • cross-discipline collaboration

PRUK is funded by the UKRI Infrastructure Fund and is currently in a commissioning phase.

Adolescent Health Study

MRC’s Adolescent Health Study (AHS) is a new longitudinal population study and data platform. It will focus on the critical biological and social developments that occur during adolescence.

AHS aims to recruit and retain around 100,000 young people, aged eight to 18 at enrolment, and will follow their health and wellbeing for a period of 10 years. Recruitment will take place predominantly through schools.

The vision is to stimulate an exponential increase in research to understand health trajectories and outcomes for young people, with a key focus on health equity.

Strategic initiatives and partnerships

UK Prevention Research Partnership

The UK Prevention Research Partnership (UKPRP) is a £50 million multi-funder initiative that supports research into the primary prevention of non-communicable diseases to improve population health and reduce health inequalities in the UK.

The research addresses the upstream determinants of non-communicable diseases and is 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

UKPRP 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
Population health improvement

Under UKRI’s health, ageing and wellbeing strategic theme we are funding an interdisciplinary network of research clusters, each addressing a separate yet complementary challenge.

They will generate research to improve the health of communities across the UK, reduce health inequalities, and develop and evaluate effective, long-lasting and environmentally sustainable interventions.

Units and centres

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

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 UKPRP 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.

Applications for new longitudinal population health studies based on cohorts are reviewed by the Longitudinal Population Studies Strategic Advisory Panel.

Boards and panels

Our boards and panels include:


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.

They can support the development of talented individuals to strengthen the UK population health research base.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Funding opportunities

Please check the individual boards and panels pages in the ‘Scope and what we’re doing’ section above for responsive-mode applications. We will only post new strategic funding opportunities in this section.

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

In 2021 MRC and the National Institute for Health and Care Research published a new complex intervention research framework. This was aimed at a broad audience including health researchers, funders, clinicians, health professionals, policy and decision makers.

It is intended to help:

  • researchers choose appropriate methods to improve research quality
  • research funders to understand the constraints on evaluation design
  • users of evaluation to weigh up the available evidence in the light of methodological and practical constraints

Natural experiments guidance

MRC’s guidance on using natural experiments to evaluate population health is currently being updated. The Guidance on Evaluation of Natural Experiments Project Oversight Group is overseeing this.

UK Primary Prevention Research portfolio

MRC carried out a detailed analysis of the UK’s primary prevention research portfolio for 2018. The report provides an important baseline to inform the strategic direction of future prevention research in the UK. It also demonstrates that we need increased multidisciplinary capability for research into whole-system influences on behaviour and public health.

Who to contact

MRC Population Health Sciences Group

The MRC Population Health Sciences Group oversees MRC’s strategy in this area. It carries out an annual analysis of MRC public health sciences portfolio.

MRC population health sciences team

Dr Catherine Moody, Head of Population Health Sciences


Dr Richard Evans, Head of Programme, Population Health Sciences


Dr Andrew Crawford, Programme Manager, Population Health Sciences and Public Health Intervention Development


Dr Katherine Dunne, Programme Manager, UK Prevention Research Partnership


Dr Jane Strom, Science Manager, UK Prevention Research Partnership


Dr Siv Vingill, Programme Manager, UK Biobank


Last updated: 23 January 2024

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