Evaluating the NIHR Leadership Programme as a Health Research Policy Intervention

Chess pawns and king shadow, as metaphor for leadership search


High-quality and high-impact research requires both a skilled researcher base and a system of leadership supporting it. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Leadership Programme, established in 2009, can be thought of as a science policy intervention to develop the leadership skills and capabilities of current and future NIHR-funded researchers. This is expected to contribute to research performance and impact, and ultimately to benefit patients.

RAND Europe evaluated the first phase of the programme (2009–2011). That evaluation found that the programme was well-received by participants and that it had a substantial impact on participants’ personal approaches to leadership. It had also helped empower individuals with the skills needed to build effective research teams, but had not had much impact at institutional and system levels at the time.

The NIHR Leadership Programme was re-commissioned and the second phase of the programme began in 2012. Its design was informed by RAND Europe’s evaluation of the first phase, and by the wider experiences of key stakeholders. Through enhancing individual leadership skills and capabilities and building a connected ‘community of practice’ around applied and clinical researchers, the phase 2 NIHR Leadership Programme aimed to:

  • Help enable world-class research for better healthcare, including strengthening translational and applied research capacities in researchers across the NIHR.
  • Facilitate a greater degree of collaboration in the health research system by encouraging individual, organisational and systems-level awareness of the role of collaborative engagement enabled by strong leadership.
  • Steer a social movement and foster a change in mindsets and attitudes about agenda-setting and the way the question ‘what is the most important thing to research?’ is asked.
  • Build translational research capacity, through individual leadership interventions, but in a way which works through the individual, to the organisational and up to the system level.


RAND Europe was commissioned to undertake the phase 2 evaluation of the programme, which was conducted in real time to enable reflection and adjustment of the programme as events unfolded, and to allow participants to contribute positively to the evaluation.

The evaluation examined whether and how the programme contributed to the strengthening of leadership skills and capabilities at the individual, organisational and system-levels and captured a diversity of impacts. The research team also explored associated enablers and challenges.

This 2-year evaluation used a multi-method approach including desk research, survey and interviews with programme participants, as well as a benchmarking exercise which examined other leadership programmes.

A number of areas for policy consideration emerged from the evaluation evidence, which should be of wider relevance to stakeholders interested in leadership as a science policy intervention.


Project Team

Sonja Marjanovic
Gavin Cochrane
Catriona Manville
Emma Harte
Joanna Chataway
Molly Morgan Jones

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