Authors: Graham Johnson, Andrew Tabner, Rachelle Sherman / Editors: Charlotte Kennedy, Govind Oliver / Codes: SLO10 / Published: 07/11/2019

The NIHR, the “Portfolio”, the CRN, and how they relate to your study

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) wears many hats. It is funded by the Department for Health and Social Care and is the nation’s largest funder of health and care research through grant programmes such as Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB), Invention for Innovation (i4i) and Health Technology Assessment (HTA). The NIHR supports academics through their career development via personal awards that cover research and salary costs e.g. the Doctoral Research Fellowship and the Clinical Scholars Award. It also supports the planning and delivery of research through the Clinical Research Network (CRN) and their Study Support Service.

The NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) “supports patients, the public and health and care organisations across England to participate in high quality research, advancing knowledge and improving care”.1 The CRN itself is split in two ways. First, it is divided by region;. There are 15 different local CRNs that coordinate local research priorities, provide support to researchers and monitor the performance of studies going on in their region. Secondly, there are 30 different speciality groups across the CRN. These have different local representatives who meet regularly to discuss different studies that are coming onto the NIHR research portfolio (more on that below) and to discuss and highlight particular local successes or difficulties. This can then lead to improved support for studies when needed.

The CRN Study Support Service can help to plan, set up and deliver your study, including assisting with site identification and performance monitoring. It’s important to engage with the service early in the study lifecycle to ensure maximum benefit as you’ll need them to approve certain aspects of the costs in your application – for example, NHS Support Costs and, more recently, excess treatment costs.

Studies are eligible for CRN support and adoption onto the NIHR “Portfolio” if they meet three conditions:

1) They meet the definition of research

2) REC and HRA approvals are in place if required (see the third blog in this series) 

3) They are funded to meet all research costs

This includes all NIHR-funded projects, as well as other nationally competitive grant calls and investigator-initiated commercial collaborative research studies (where you run the study, but a commercial partner provides you grant-like funding). It also potentially includes those funded by overseas governments or charities. There is also a list of NIHR non-commercial partners – these are organisations that meet the criteria for CRN support and as such, a grant awarded by one of these means the study should be eligible for portfolio adoption. It is worth noting that the RCEM is on this list, and hence their research grants come with CRN support. Note that even if your funding stream makes your study “automatically eligible” you still need to submit a Portfolio Application Form (PAF) pretty early on via IRAS (see our approvals blog for more general information on the IRAS form).

Having a study on the portfolio has a number of benefits; it may mean you are able to access support from CRN research delivery staff (i.e. research nurses) either already employed by your Trust (but CRN-funded), or as part of the CRN Research Support team. It also is a big win for your Trust and, hopefully, for you. Firstly, the local CRN will pay the Trust certain agreed costs that can’t be covered in a grant; these are known as “NHS Support Costs” and generally cover the time taken to recruit patients onto the study. Depending on how your Trust’s R&D department works, these costs are claimed and can be reimbursed to your department locally, effectively “buying your time” for that aspect of the study. It isn’t always much, but it can add up for big recruiting studies and gain favour with your local team. Secondly, the number of participants recruited to a portfolio study contributes towards the overall target of the Trust and the CRN. This performance can then be used to help determine the proportion of funding your local CRN gets, and subsequently how much of that “slice of the pie” your Trust gets. This might not directly affect you straight away, but it should help to build a research infrastructure within your Trust, which will help you in the future (this is a bit of a simplistic overview, but you get the gist).

One new way the NIHR is supporting research is through NIHR incubators. NIHR incubators are intended to improve research delivery in areas recognised to have an unmet research need. Emergency Care is one of six areas currently identified for development. The initiative aims to encourage early career research interest and a subsequent increase in high quality, competitive applications to existing funding streams. It is currently a pilot initiative and the impact remains to be seen but the hope is that they will provide targeted career development support for those conducting research in high-priority areas.

Why does all this matter to me?

  • If you’re doing healthcare research in the UK, there’s a reasonable chance that one of the NIHR funding streams may be an appropriate place to look to meet the costs of your research (for more information see the second blog in this series).
  • Pursue adoption of your study onto the portfolio if appropriate, and access the help and support available through the CRN if this is successful.
  • Consider the NIHR as a source of funding for personal awards (e.g. fellowships to support a PhD, post-doctoral research etc) but do be aware that they’re very competitive and seek expert advice early – your local Research Design Service (RDS) may offer workshops.
  • As always, your local R&D/R&I team are a great first point of contact and can help you navigate the variety of funding and support options available to you. They also tend to have close links to the CRN, in case you aren’t sure where to start. The Trust, via your R&D, will also often need to be consulted, as they act as the grant holder for any NIHR funding awards (including fellowships), so getting them involved can also help.

Getting started in research – Part 1

Getting started in research – Part 2

Getting started in research – Part 3


  1. National Institute for Health Research. Clinical Research Network.