UCL News


Health policy research at UCL boosted by over £20m from NIHR

1 August 2023

UCL has been awarded funding worth an estimated £20m for Policy Research Units by the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) to support research into health issues including early cancer diagnosis, mental and reproductive health.

Pregnant patient speaking with a doctor

The NIHR Policy Research Units (PRUs) bring together multidisciplinary teams of researchers to address complex societal challenges and enable the development of research-based policy at a local and national level. Drawing on UCL’s strengths across a broad range of health and life sciences, PRU researchers can respond to pressing issues of research policy, provide insight into the factors affecting health and wellbeing, and support the government and public bodies in making informed decisions and developing effective policy for health and social care.

By leveraging UCL’s strong partnerships across healthcare, the higher education sector, and commitment to integrating the voices of people with lived experience, PRU researchers can deliver research with proven impact to help people live longer, healthier lives.

The funding awarded by NIHR builds on an initial award in 2017, and will see the establishment of one new PRU in Reproductive Health, as well as continuing the research programme for a further five years at the four existing PRUs which investigate: Cancer Awareness, Screening and Early Diagnosis; Healthy Weight; Mental Health; and Children and Families.

Professor Geraint Rees, UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation and Global Engagement), said: “The NIHR policy research programme is a vital initiative for developing effective health policy for public benefit, and UCL is proud to host these five centres. I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to colleagues across the PRUs for their work to date; this award is testament to the value that they add in delivering impact for public benefit.

“We know that effective policy making in these areas is critical for national health and wellbeing, but it also has broader impacts for our society, enabling people to live more rewarding, productive lives. By hosting these five centres together at UCL, drawing on UCL’s wider policy engagement programme and working with partners at other universities, we hope to enrich our understanding of health policy research and put people at the heart of policymaking.”

Professor Lucy Chappell, Chief Scientific Advisor, DHSC, and Chief Executive of NIHR, said: "In the NIHR, we have a range of ways to make sure that health and care research benefits patients and the public. The NIHR's new Policy Research Units are designed to provide strong evaluation of policy. This helps government and related organisations to be able to act on the latest evidence when making decisions about health and social care that could impact us all.

“We are funding Policy Research Units across a range of key areas of policy ranging from cancer screening to social care. Several new topics will expand the ability of the units to help address the major healthcare challenges that we are facing, including improving reproductive health, tackling addiction as well as dementia and neurodegeneration."

About the Policy Research Units

UCL hosts five NIHR Policy Research Units, and works closely with the University of Newcastle on the Behavioural Science PRU, and with the University of Oxford on the Maternal and Neonatal Health and Care PRU, both of which have also been awarded new funding.

The Mental Health Policy Research Unit (MHPRU) is led by Professor Sonia Johnson (UCL Psychiatry) with Professor Alan Simpson (King’s College London) and Professor Brynmor Lloyd-Evans (UCL Psychiatry) as co-directors. It follows the first MHPRU, led by the same researchers and funded from 2017 to 2023. This has delivered a wide-ranging programme including providing the evidence base for the Independent Review of the Mental Health Act and conducting a rapid research programme on mental health needs resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The new MHPRU is a partnership between UCL, King’s College London and the University of York and a nationwide group of co-applicants and collaborators, including a large group of researchers with relevant lived experience. 

The Healthy Weight PRU is led by Professor Russell Viner (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) and Dr Clare Llewellyn (UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care), and focuses on promoting healthy weight across the population. Partners include the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Centre for Food Policy at City University, together with Liverpool, Leeds Beckett, Oxford and Birmingham Universities.

The Policy Research Unit on Cancer Awareness, Screening and Early Diagnosis is directed by Professor Yoryos Lyratzopoulos (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care), who leads UCL’s Epidemiology of Cancer Healthcare & Outcomes research group,) and Professor Brian Nicholson (Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences). The team conducts research to support patients, healthcare professionals and the NHS in achieving earlier cancer detection and diagnosis. Led by UCL, it is a multi-institutional partnership with co-investigators at the Universities of Cambridge, Leicester, Surrey and Oxford.

The Children and Families PRU is led by Professor Ruth Gilbert (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) and Dr Jenny Woodman (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) in partnership with the Universities of Bristol, Oxford, Manchester, and Newcastle, King's College London, Bradford Institute for Health Research, Anna Freud Centre, and Institute of Fiscal Studies. In this PRU, researchers generate evidence to improve the health of children and families and to develop methods and data resources to improve the quality and timeliness of evidence for policy.

The new Reproductive Health PRU will be co-directed by Dr Jennifer Hall and Professor Judith Stephenson (both UCL Institute for Women’s Health). Covering all aspects of the reproductive lifecourse, including menopause, contraception, infertility and urogynaecology, this PRU has a focus on addressing health inequalities and working in a co-produced way with people the work impacts. It is a collaboration with the Universities of Birmingham, Oxford and Warwick, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Hywel Dda University Health Board.