Research to prevent serious illness will be boosted by a £20m fund to encourage public health projects.
Obesity is one of the most pressing public health concerns
The money will create up to five "Centres of Excellence", helping recruit experts and provide facilities.
Government departments and charities have funded the five-year scheme after a review showed that public health research could be improved.
Ministers say they need increases in disease prevention as part of their plans for the future of the NHS.
The project is being led by the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC), following a review led by Professor Ian Diamond.
He found that there was an urgent need for more public health research to tackle issues such as smoking and obesity, and that extra support would be needed to make this happen.
He stressed the need for the projects to involve not just health researchers, but experts from a wide variety of disciplines, such as economists, sociologists and psychologists to "maximise the effectiveness" of their plans.
He said: "We already know that the reasons for obesity are primarily a combination of poor diet and lack of exercise - but we want to develop effective ways to encourage people into healthier lifestyles.
"We need hard-nosed research and we need it urgently."
The UKCRC is inviting centres interested in launching research to bid for up to £5m over five years.
Professor Diamond, who represents the Economic and Social Research Council on the UKCRC, said: "There have been big improvements in health and life expectancy over the last century, however the UK still faces challenges to ensure that as a society we benefit from longer and healthier lives.
"When we've talked to people, they've told us that not enough has been invested in the past in research to get the most out of public health."
UKCRC chief executive Dr Liam O'Toole added: "Together the funders are committed to tackling the key issues needed to build a firm foundation for the future of public health research in the UK."
Would-be bidders have until only the end of March 2007 to suggest projects to receive financial support, and funding decisions will be made at the end of 2007.
Following a report published in 2004, the government has placed greater emphasis on prevention as part of its strategy for the NHS.
It says that by cutting smoking, drinking and obesity, many conditions which require expensive, long-term treatment in hospitals or the community could be removed altogether or their impact lessened.
Professor John Toy, from Cancer Research UK, one of the project funders, said that more than half of all cancers could be prevented by changes to lifestyle.
He said: "This exciting new initiative will energise the field by bringing together leading experts from a range of disciplines to develop new directions for research and train the next generation of researchers."
The British Heart Foundation has contributed £2.5m to the project. The foundation's associate medical director, Jeremy Pearson, said: "We hope the results will have a major impact on influencing future policies to improve the nation's heart health."