The Public Health Improvement Research Network – A transdisciplinary network cycle approach to engaging policy and practice.

DECIPHer’s engagement with policy and practice in Wales is coordinated by PHIRN, the Public Health Improvement Research Network. PHIRN presents a network cycle approach to tackle complex public health challenges and began with initial infrastructure funding in 2005. PHIRN’s overall aim is to work with policy makers and practitioners at an early stage to generate research questions and promote naturalistic experiments through ‘horizon scanning’ and via involvement in policy planning cycles.PHIRN is currently funded by Health and Care Research Wales through the National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research (NCPHWR). Broader organisational support from the UK Centres of Excellence infrastructure (DECIPHer) has helped sustain the network and collaborations over time.  PHIRN investments have enabled a series of joint appointments and co-locations between partner organisations, including:

  • a long-standing relationship with Public Health Wales where the Head of Public Health Improvement is based with PHIRN one day each week
  • a secondment with Welsh Government where two PHIRN-based researchers co-locate between academic and policy offices, working on joint research projects.

PHIRN approaches knowledge exchange through: strategic partnerships; establishing research development groups (RDGs); and through transdisciplinary networking activities.

Strategic partnerships

Strategic transdisciplinary partnerships are central to the PHIRN model, including: academic partners (DECIPHer, SHRN, the Centre for Trials Research and CASCADE); policy partners (including Welsh Government and Public Health Wales); practice partners (including the Welsh Network of Healthy School Schemes, ASH Wales, the Department of Health, NICE, South Wales Police, NHS staff , and Brook); and also partnerships with members of the public, specifically an advisory group of young people aged 14 to 18 (ALPHA).

The Partnership Board meet quarterly to manage PHIRN resources, adopt studies, review the research portfolio, agree collaborative activities and engage in strategic planning.  The current board membership is:

Research Development Groups

The most critical components of PHIRN’s activities are the Research Development Groups (RDGs), which are a mechanism for the development and submission of research proposals. An RDG is a small working group, registered on the PHIRN portfolio, which typically consists of researchers, policy makers and practitioners. The RDG process typically involves:

  • Identifying research questions and a RDG lead
  • Identifying key research and non-academic collaborators to join the RDG
  • Identifying PHIRN resources, including research methods experts and our public involvement specialist, who can support the RDG.

Transdisciplinary networking activities

Regular seminars are run in collaboration with Welsh Government for a broad range of professional groups, including non-academic policy makers and practitioners, and provide a good opportunity to identify areas of joint interests and potential RDGs. Examples include:

In addition, a fortnightly PHIRN email bulletin highlights funding opportunities to key stakeholders throughout Wales.

PHIRN track record

The PHIRN partnership has been sustained for over ten years and outputs include research income and funded studies, alongside capacity building and professional development.  Since 2005 PHIRN has supported funded studies worth over £30 million.

Two examples of how PHIRN has impacted on policy and practice by developing and implementing pragmatic policy trials are: the evaluation of the Welsh Government’s Primary School Free Breakfast Initiative (PSFBI) and the evaluation of the National Exercise Referral Scheme (NERS).

Members of PHIRN have provided expert guidance and advice to working groups, including:

  • Invited academic expert Task and Finish Group Welsh Government funding of Ash Wales
  • Invited academic expert Task and Finish Group Welsh Government development of Welsh Network of Health HE and FE
  • Invited expert NICE review of effectiveness and cost effectiveness of Exercise Referral schemes
  • Provide expert opinion NICE Guidance: Managing overweight and obesity among children and young people. Two ALPHA young people to sit on a Consumer Panel for the SAIL databank and provide regular reviews for NIHR PHR board.

Due to its success, PHIRN’s approach has diffused nationally and internationally. Sister organisations have been established in Northern Ireland and Melbourne, and PHIRN’s working practices have been adopted by Fuse, another UKCRC Public Health Research Centre of Excellence.

Contacting us

The registration process involves an initial discussion with one of the PHIRN team. The PHIRN Partnership Board will then consider whether the study can be adopted or affiliated and if so the level of support that PHIRN can offer.

Please contact PHIRN on 02920 879609 or if you would like to discuss an idea or existing proposal.

Collaboration case studies