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22 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:38pm

How research partnerships can help deliver a prosperous post-pandemic future

Collaboration between industry and academia is key to recovering from Covid-19.

By Dr Seamus O'Neill

As Covid-19 cases surge for a second time, the importance of preparedness and resilience within the healthcare system will once again come to the fore. During the pandemic so far, we have seen extraordinary examples of dedication and flexibility across the care system. We have also seen a willingness to change and adapt, with innovations being developed and implemented at an unprecedented speed and scale to meet the challenges this health crisis presents.

The impact of the pandemic on the north of England has been disproportionate, according to our analysis of Office of National Statistics data, both in terms of death rates and increases in unemployment. The region has suffered deep-rooted health inequalities for decades, amplified by continued lack of public health investment and an imbalance in R&D investment.

When the full, but as yet unknowable, impact of Brexit is added in, we could face a perfect storm, making the need to tackle the widening inequalities in the region and with the rest of the UK all the more critical.

As a membership organisation that links ten research-rich NHS Trusts, ten leading universities and the region’s four Academic Health Science Networks, the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) has witnessed this adaptability and willingness to push boundaries across the health and life sciences ecosystem in the north.

The expertise and assets that exist within these institutions is something that must be recognised and invested in as we look towards strengthening the economy and our nation’s health post-Covid. The government seems serious about its pledge to level up the north, and now more than ever, we need action, we need it quickly and we need it at scale.

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Our Health for Wealth report laid bare the stark health inequalities that exist between the north and the south and made the link between poor health and poor productivity. As the government looks towards building a stronger, healthier UK economy post-Covid and post-Brexit, it can’t ignore the potential economic gains that would come with improving health in the north.

The NHSA works closely with our members to harness the expertise and assets within the region’s health research landscape. This collective capability drives both health improvement and economic growth as research collaborations are brokered, networks are built, investment is attracted, and the north’s health research and innovation system speaks with one voice.

However, despite the north of England’s proven excellence within health and life sciences, opportunities in the region have been overlooked when it comes to investment by the government in research and development (R&D). Nesta’s The Missing 4 Billion report highlighted the regional imbalances in R&D spending across England which result in the north missing out on an estimated £1.6bn every year.

We understand that part of the ambition in the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) later this year will do something to address this inequity.

With the right level of investment from the CSR, we can build on the collective assets of the north of England life sciences cluster. The region has huge capabilities in health research and innovation, with particular strengths across diagnostics, digital pathology and artificial intelligence, advanced therapies, mental health, and health data. We are offering an opportunity for the government to invest in areas of acknowledged excellence in the north that are crucial to the vitality of the UK health and life sciences sector. In doing so there is an opportunity to drive post-Covid and post-Brexit economic growth across the whole of the UK.

We will continue to champion the role of our sector and the assets in the north. We will also work in partnership with our member organisations, industry and others who are striving for similar. However, this is a complex issue and the underlying economic and health inequality will not be solved overnight.

Reversing decades of under-investment and endemic inequalities must start with acknowledging the need for change and understanding the societal risks of doing nothing. There is a clear need for action and for sustained investment. We should make an immediate start to build the necessary foundations that will lead to a healthier, more prosperous future for the people and the economy of the north.

Dr Seamus O’Neill is Chief Executive at the Northern Health Science Alliance.

We look forward to discussing the crucial role the NHS and universities can play in the levelling up agenda post-Covid during the NHSA’s panel session at the New Statesman Virtual Conference – Labour Week. Panellists include Jonathan Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care; Emma Hardy MP, Shadow Minister for Further Education and Universities; and Professor Clare Bambra, Professor of Public Health at the Population Health Sciences Institute, Newcastle University. Book here

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