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Methods Research for Complex Interventions

The MRC, through the MRC-NIHR Methodology Research Programme (MRP), wishes to fund high quality methods development research to support the use and evaluation of complex interventions in health research.


Complex interventions are widely used in the health service, in public health practice and in other policy areas that have important health consequences (for example, housing, transport or social policy). They can be described as interventions that contain several interacting components although the complexity may arise through several dimensions. The landscape of complex interventions also includes ‘natural experiments’ for example policy/actions by government (national or local) or private/voluntary sector that might be expected to have an impact on population health/inequalities but is not ‘developed’ with that intention.


Dimensions of complexity in complex interventions

- Number of and interactions between components within the experimental and control interventions

- Number and difficulty of behaviours required by those delivering or receiving the intervention

- Number of groups or organisational levels targeted by the intervention

- Number and variability of outcomes

- Degree of flexibility or tailoring of the intervention permitted


MRC has long recognised the unique methodological challenges posed by the development and evaluation of complex interventions and has championed the development of guidance both for researchers and research funders, firstly in 2000 (Framework for the Development and Evaluation of RCTs for Complex Interventions to Improve Health and again more recently with revised guidance in 2008.

Through the MRC-NIHR Methodology Research Programme (MRP), the need for new methodological research in this area was highlighted by stakeholders through its needs-led programme. Therefore during 2008 and to better define the need for methods and guidance in this area, the MRP invited researchers and the stakeholder community to submit their ideas about which specific aspects of research methodologies relevant to the development and/or evaluation of complex interventions should be addressed by the MRP.


This highlight notice represents the MRP Panel’s response to consideration of the responses received to that request for ideas for new methods research.


Highlight notice

In response to the request for ideas, a total of 36 responses were received. As each response was able to submit up to three priority research ideas/areas, a total of 76 areas were highlighted. The responses received were mostly from the academic research community. A wide range of multidisciplinary issues were raised. These spanned needs and issues across all the different stages of the MRC Complex Intervention Framework, and covered a range of issues such as different types of complex intervention (for example, surgical, behavioural, psychological or natural experiments) and their use and application in a variety of settings (for example, health services research, public health or social policy).


In view of the breadth of issues raised, the MRP Panel agreed not to be prescriptive about the specific issues and areas of methods development research it wished to encourage with regards to complex interventions. The MRP therefore invites any high quality proposal which through generalisable methods development research seeks to strengthen the knowledge base or evaluation of the impact of complex interventions in health research.


The MRP Panel is particularly keen to support applications for methods research which focus on:

  • behavioural change interventions
  • psychological interventions and
  • natural experiments i.e. assessments of policy interventions on health.


In accordance with the remit of the MRP applications should focus specifically on supporting methods development research (and not application of existing research methods) where the proposed outputs are generalisable beyond an individual case study and where methods development is the primary purpose of the research.


Application process

The titles of all applications in response to this highlight should be prefixed with HCI: when filling out the JES form, and on any attachments, e.g. “HCI: A method for…”


Applications are invited through the normal MRC funding schemes and will be considered at the regular MRP Panel meetings. These will be in competition with other applications received, but the Board will be mindful of the strategic importance of this area Click here for details on available grants.


Contact and guidance

You are encouraged to discuss your proposals with MRC Head Office at an early stage, please contact:

Contact: Dr David Crosby


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