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South secures research cash

North slates skewed system of biomedical funding allocation. Rebecca Attwood reports.

Champions of England's northern universities this week blasted health chiefs for pouring biomedical research money into institutions in the South to the detriment of medical science and patient care in the North.

Alan Gilbert, vice-chancellor of Manchester University, led the charge after his institution was not selected as one of England's comprehensive biomedical research centres (BRC) of excellence, worth tens of millions of pounds in total. The universities chosen are all in the "golden triangle" of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

In a university newsletter, Professor Gilbert quotes Alex Markham, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, as saying that the decision will perpetuate a situation of funding inequality that has persisted in the National Health Service for decades.

Professor Gilbert quotes Professor Markham as saying: "More than 80 per cent of the NHS research and development budget goes to London and its environs. Is it a surprise that these centres win 'open' competitions when they have had hidden cumulative subsidies totalling billions of pounds over the years? Surely this concentration of resources cannot be in the interests of the country?"

The news is "deeply disappointing", Professor Gilbert writes in the newsletter. He says it was "against all hope and expectation" that the partnership between his university and the Central Manchester and Manchester Children's NHS Trust was not selected because, according to the NHS, some aspects of clinical research were not of sufficiently high international standing.

He says: "The concentration of comprehensive BRCs in the South East is a very dispiriting outcome for medical science in England.

"More generally, it is bad news for patients, for patient care is enhanced by the presence of the world-class clinicians who are attracted to hospitals offering advanced research opportunities. The medical research playing field is not level in the UK."

Professor Gilbert says he is not making excuses for failing to win BRC standing, adding that the university "must not rely on research strategies predicated on regional deprivation nor ask favours because we have been disadvantaged historically".

"There is simply no alternative to being internationally competitive at the highest level, irrespective of the gradients of the playing fields where the competition takes place," he writes.

David Secher, chief executive of the N8 group of Northern England research-intensive universities, agreed that NHS investment into the South East, and especially London, has been disproportionately high.

Dr Secher said: "The N8 had supported Manchester's bid, and obviously we are disappointed.

"It has become self-perpetuating, because more investment leads to better infrastructure, leads to 'better' applications.

"I think the NHS should recognise, in its allocation, the historic imbalance of its previous investment. We need to support centres of excellence throughout the country to maintain UK global competitiveness."

Alastair Fitter, pro vice-chancellor for research at York University, said he thought the disparity could affect quality of medical care.

"I don't think the issue is one of fairness to researchers or institutions, but of whether the result is equity in the quality of medical care across the UK, since quality medical research has a direct influence on the quality of medical practice."

Margaret Atack, pro vice-chancellor for research at Leeds University, said: "The economic gap between North and South affects us in multiple ways, and we need to redress the balance by understanding the historic effects of the golden triangle, as underlined by Professor Gilbert, and by growing activity in the North.

"The country needs to support its research-intensive universities in the North to strengthen the national research base on the global stage."

A Department of Health spokeswoman said the DH "was in no doubt" as to Manchester's growing standing as a centre of excellence in scientific research.

She said: "That is why, over the past five years, the department has invested £5.2 million to support Manchester's Clinical Research Facilities and Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre, and why over the next five years we will be more than doubling this to £12.4 million.

Competition for the grants was intense and of high quality and not all applicants could be successful."

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

THE WINNERS

Comprehensive biomedical research centres that work across research areas

  • Cambridge University and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • King's College London and Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust
  • Imperial College London and Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust and St Mary's Hospital NHS Trust
  • Oxford University and Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals NHS Trust
  • University College London and University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

FIGHTING FOR THE NORTH

The Northern Way: a collaboration between three northern regional development agencies that aims to bridge a £30 billion output gap between the North and the average for England

The White Rose University Consortium: a partnership between Yorkshire's leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. The consortium claims a combined research power equal to that of Oxford and Cambridge universities

N8 consortium: Newcastle, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and York universities. Focuses on raising the research profile of northern universities and increasing social and economic impact of research on the North's economy.

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