NIHR School of Public Health Research have announced the launch of their PhD studentship competition 2023, offering a flexible opportunity to start in October 2023 for full-time and part-time applicants.

Established in April 2012 and renewed 2022–2027, the NIHR School for Public Health Research (SPHR) is a partnership between nine leading centres of academic public health research excellence across England. Members of the School for 2022–2027 are the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter and Sheffield; Imperial College London; The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM); the LiLaC collaboration between the Universities of Liverpool and Lancaster; Fuse, The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, a collaboration between Newcastle, Durham, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside Universities; and PHRESH, a collaboration between the Universities of Birmingham, Warwick and Keele.

NIHR SPHR aims to build the evidence base for effective public health practice by bringing together England’s leading public health research expertise in one virtual organisation. The School conducts applied public health research to increase the volume and quality evidence on cost-effective interventions and supports local public health practitioners and policy makers to engage with research and seek out research evidence to inform their decisions.

The PhD studentship competition offers a flexible opportunity to start a PhD in October 2023 (studentships up to 5 years part-time and 3 years full-time). Applications are invited from individuals who wish to develop a career in public health research. NIHR SPHR's goal is to recruit outstanding and diverse candidates across the full range of studentships. They are committed to a supportive, inclusive, caring and positive community and welcome applications from disabled people and those of different cultures, genders, ages, ethnicities and beliefs.

Applicants must have an undergraduate degree in a discipline relevant to public health research and will be expected to complete a PhD during the award period.

This award will fund tuition fees (2023/24 £4,682) and an annual tax-free stipend at UKRI rates (2023/24 £18,022) and a contribution towards research and training costs. Overseas students are welcome to apply but will need to fund the remainder of their fees and any visa requirements from alternative sources.

There are a total of 18 projects being advertised of which 10 studentships are expected to be funded.

Imperial has two projects available:

Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic to create a national narrative and build support for population-level behaviour change to achieve Net Zero sooner

Dr Seans Beevers, Imperial College London

Dr Milica Vasiljevic, Fuse, Durham University

Dr Christina Atchison, Imperial College, London

Project outline

A public engagement strategy is urgently required to understand how a combination of Government, media and scientific messaging can effectively influence the UK population towards making the low carbon choices needed to take the UK towards Net Zero. Working with the Climate Change Committee (CCC) we are currently undertaking forecasts of the co-benefits of Net Zero policy on air pollution and public health. The CCC forecasts include widespread use of low carbon heating such as heat pumps, home insulation, conversion to induction cooking, vehicle electrification, active travel and dietary changes.

Recently, the House of Lords reported that ‘Behavioural science evidence and best practice show that a combination of policy levers, including regulation and fiscal incentives, must be used by Government, alongside clear communication, as part of a joined-up approach to overcome the barriers to making low-carbon choices’. In addition, that ‘Fairness is key to effective behaviour change and now more than ever must be at the heart of policy design’.

Some low carbon choices represent significant changes at home and in people’s behaviour and will proportionately be adopted by those who are most able to pay, increasing inequalities and failing to provide the scale of change required to achieve Net Zero targets. Yet during the COVID-19 pandemic the Government led massive societal change, albeit over a relatively short period, using regular messaging of complex scientific subjects, effective regulation and fiscal policy. This combination of actions resulted in high levels of behaviour change quickly within the UK population.

The proposed PhD project will use a combination of modelling of REACT survey data, and the generation of novel quantitative and qualitative data to assess how to most effectively communicate population-level behaviour change levers in order to achieve Net Zero targets sooner.

Indicative research questions:

  • What were the most effective messages used by Government, media and scientists during the COVID lockdown periods (2020-22) that impacted on population-level behaviour change?
  • What are the most impactful and effective messages that could be used to encourage population-level behaviour change related to Net Zero targets amongst a nationally representative English sample?
  • What is the public acceptability of using such messaging to affect behaviour change related to Net Zero targets?

The impact of fiscal measures to support fuel and living costs on winter health in England: a nationwide analysis from 1997 to 2025

Dr Bethan Davies, Imperial College London

Dr Laure de Preux, Imperial College London

Professor Sarah Rodgers, LiLaC, University of Liverpool

Project outline

The population experiences worse health in the winter, with over 30% more deaths than the non-winter months. Within this, there are stark inequalities with the very young, very elderly, those with co-morbidities, lower incomes and those living in the eastern regions in England most at risk. Low indoor temperature, associated with adverse biomarkers and health outcomes, is likely to contribute to these excess deaths.

Fuel poverty is experienced by 3.16 million (13.2%) households in England. In 1997 two main schemes to support vulnerable people with meeting energy costs were introduced (Winter Fuel Payment; Cold Weather Payment). In 2022, the government announced additional support as a response to rising energy costs and inflation (Cost of Living Payment; Warm Home Discount Scheme) and some Local Authorities have announced additional fiscal measures to support their residents. This project will provide an in-depth assessment of the various fiscal measures in support of winter fuel costs and cost of living rises and their associations with short-term health outcomes.

This studentship will be based across the Business School and School of Public Health (including the MRC Centre for Environment and Health) at Imperial College London. The student will undertake a nationwide 25-year analysis of the association between cold weather on mortality and morbidity in communities to identify inequalities in health impacts and estimate the health-benefits of these longstanding and novel financial support initiatives. This will include a literature review of the benefits of monetary transfers during winter months and a scoping review of the different policies. The empirical work will use NHS and ONS data and require the application of (for example) Poisson regression models to area-level data on mortality, hospital admissions, birth outcomes and environmental exposures including temperature and housing quality measures. The student will benefit from an interdisciplinary training in public health, epidemiology and economics. The research will support the design of future strategies at both local and national levels to address the health impacts of fuel poverty and the cost of living crisis in England on the most vulnerable populations.

Indicative research questions:

  • What are the contemporary associations between health outcomes, death and outdoor temperature in winter? Which community level factors are associated with vulnerability to cold-related health impacts?
  • How has the population in England adapted to winter shocks over the last 25 years?
  • Have government interventions such as targeted fiscal support reduced individuals’ vulnerability to temperature drops?

Further information and how to apply

Further informaton is available on the NIHR SPHR webpages.

The application has three stages, firstly complete the application form, upload the required documents and submit by 5pm Thursday 30th March 2023. You can select up to maximum of two projects in your application.