MRC support for the population health sciences: strategy, priorities and funding
Support for population health sciences is an important element of the MRC’s strategy. The MRC’s 2008/9-2010-11 Delivery Plan stated that:
The MRC is keen to maintain the UK’s strong internationally recognised portfolio of public health research. Our plans, therefore, include maintaining a broad range of research in population sciences which will continue to maintain (with other funders) the UK’s reputation for high quality research in this area. As described above, working with NIHR, some additional resources will be focused on the development of the ‘translational’ priorities in this area. A main focus will draw together developments in life course research and ageing initiatives. MRC has also been a major contributor to the National Prevention Research Initiative and the UKCRC Public Health Centres of Excellence. Through the establishment of the Population Health Sciences Research Network and the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy (jointly with the Scottish Executive) the MRC has enhanced critical mass and multidisciplinary thinking with the UK’s population science research portfolio. We will continue to contribute to and develop these initiatives.
The MRC’s new strategy for 2009-14, Research Changes Lives, has identified two research priority themes: 'Resilience, repair and replacement' and 'Living a long and healthy life'. The second covers a range of aspects of population health, including
Genetics and disease
Life course perspective
Lifestyles affecting health
Environment and health
As the strategy states
Health professionals, policy-makers and individuals can potentially improve the chances of having a healthier life by addressing the complex interplay between genetics, development, and life events or lifestyles. In the fields of genetics and genomics, population sciences, and in tailoring treatments to individual needs, there are opportunities for research aimed at determining how these factors influence the quality and length of life.
Responsibility for managing the MRC’s investment in the population health sciences, and determining the overall strategic approach rests with the Population and Systems Medicine Board (PSMB) and the Population Health Sciences Group (PHSG). PSMB is one of four research boards, which make funding decisions on behalf of the MRC. Each board is responsible for one of the four major areas of medical science that make up the MRC portfolio. They hold their own research budgets, and review and manage scientific activity within their specialist areas.
The PSMB is responsible for the MRC's funding in:
Function and pathophysiology, and prevention or treatment of deterioration or illness, in all the major organ systems (except the brain), including:
Nutrition, energy metabolism, obesity;
Ageing and lifelong health;
Maternal health and the early origins of health and disease;
Trauma, acute medicine and surgery;
Lifestyle, socio-economic and behavioural impacts on general health and health inequalities.
Some key areas of the population health sciences are managed by Boards other than PSMB. For example, responsibility for population-based aetiological studies is shared between boards. Core funding for cohorts addressing multiple conditions and processes is covered by the Molecular and Cellular Medicine Board (MCMB), and research into specific processes or diseases is supported by the board responsible for that area. For further information about all the Boards’ areas of responsibility, click here.
The PHSG is one of four overview groups which advise the MRC’s Strategy Board on the allocation of funding and resources in their area. Their job is to review the MRC's portfolio across the relevant research boards, identifying potential gaps and opportunities, consulting with the wider research community and relevant stakeholders and commissioning studies as needed. The PHSG is responsible for developing the MRC's strategy for population-based health research and ensuring that the MRC's portfolio in this area remains strong across all the MRC's research boards. Specific areas of responsibility include epidemiology, investment in cohorts and biobanks, population research methodologies including modelling and population-based genetic studies. The group will also develop strategies for improving translational public health research, covering the development and evaluation of interventions for disease prevention and health policy relevant to the UK through the MRC's partnership with the National Institute for Health Research.
A key area of interest for the PHSRN is research methodology. As part of the MRC/NIHR single health research strategy the MRC is leading a new funding programme for methodological research. This will support methods development in a range of areas including clinical trials, population health sciences, health services research and health policy. It covers:
Methods for the design and analysis of primary descriptive and evaluative studies.
Methods for the design and analysis of secondary studies involving reviews and evidence synthesis of descriptive and evaluative studies.
The design, process and analysis of clinical trials including improved methods for the assessment of risk, efficacy, safety and other issues related to regulatory approvals for new medicines, devices and diagnostics.
Methodologies in the applied disciplines underpinning research in the health science, for example, health economics, biostatistics and quantitative analysis, modelling, decision sciences, epidemiology, behavioural sciences and health psychology, qualitative analysis and mixed methods, medical sociology, organisational and management science and bioethics.
The assessment and validation of patient-reported measures of health, health outcomes and satisfaction.
The focus is on research to develop methods that can be applied beyond a specific case-study. The ultimate aim is to improve methods across the whole spectrum of health research from basic to applied, with a view to accelerating and improving research translation. For more information, click here.
In a related development, involving a number of PHSRN units, the MRC is funding a national network for trials methodology research. The network is based on seven hubs, each made up of a core team undertaking high quality research to develop new and improved methods to design, conduct, analyse and report clinical trials. In addition, the hubs will provide support and advice to the clinical trials research community on methodological issues.
MRC supports capacity building in methodology and the population health sciences through two newly-launched fellowship schemes:
The new MRC Population Health Scientist Fellowship scheme focuses on the provision of population-based research into the promotion and maintenance of health, the frequency, burden and causal pathways of ill-health, and the effectiveness of interventions designed to reduce or prevent ill-health.
The new MRC Methodology Fellowship scheme focuses on the provision of specialist training in the development and investigation of innovative research methods across all areas of health research. Methodology fellowships will in general be appropriate for those ready to make the transition to be an independent researcher through a period of specialist methodology training. By contrast, while methodological innovation may be an outcome of the Population Health Scientist Fellowship, it is not an essential prerequisite.