There are more ‘world-class’ research-intensive universities in the North of England than in Spain, Italy and France combined. Just think about that for a moment; that means the Northern universities of Durham, Manchester, Newcastle, York, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds and Lancaster are rated higher for their research power than those stretching from the Sorbonne to Madrid to Rome.
What’s more, the Northern universities are particularly strong in the health and life sciences related subjects. According to the Times Higher Education’s league tables, Manchester ranked first in dentistry, nursing and pharmacy, Sheffield’s Biomedical science school is in sixth place and Lancaster is eighth out of the 94 universities surveyed.
Yet these Northern universities and their teaching hospitals are still treated as the poor patient when it comes to government funding of health research compared to the South. And the divide is deep; under the 2017 government’s allocation of £816m for health research for the next five years, just £55 million is going to the big four Northern university-hospital partnerships.
That divvies up with £16m for Newcastle, £29m for Manchester, £7m for Leeds and £4m for Sheffield. Although the next five year tranche is more than three times as much as the previous allocation, the sum available nationally went up by more which means the North’s share actually slipped – from 7.6 per cent of the total to 6.8 per cent.
Compare this to the riches going to the South, and particularly the so-called golden triangle of Cambridge, Oxford and London. Cambridge alone will receive £114m, Oxford £113m, Imperial has been granted £90m, Great Ormond Street gets £37m and Guys and St Thomas’s have been given £64m.
That such a big gap exists is all the more bizarre because there are such strong links between research funding and improving health outcomes; a worthy goal in itself for the North of the UK where people not only die much younger than in the South but are unwell and economically inactive for far longer too. Sadly, this gap is widening: the most recent research shows that figures for life expectancy – and the period of being ill – are worsening across the North rather than improving: a young girl born today in Bradford can expect to have 15 fewer healthy years than a girl born in Guildford.
No wonder then that the IPPR North think-tank is calling on the government to commit a fifth of the next round of the health research budget as “catch-up cash” for the North, and a bigger chunk of the £2bn science budget just announced in the recent Autumn Statement. Or that so many politicians and academics North of the M25 are stubbornly cynical about Theresa May’s promise to help the regions and her still rather lacklustre support for the Northern Powerhouse.
If the government is serious about coming up with a ‘proper’ industrial strategy, then it should take on board this excellent new report from Luke Raikes at IPPR North,“Health Innovation: Breathing Life into the Northern Powerhouse”. It’s precisely this type of clearly defined and targeted funding which should be part of a 21st century industrial policy; one that gives a leg-up to areas of existing expertise and supports their expansion. And one that is worthwhile from a social perspective too. For the IPPR report,which was supported by the Northern Health Science Alliance, a collaboration of the North’s eight universities, eight research intensive teaching hospitals as well as four academic health science networks, also shows the clear links between research and healthy outcomes, with research-active health trusts already witnessing lower rates of patient mortality following emergency admissions.
So it goes without saying that attempts to reduce the gap in health equality between the North and the South is a no-brainer, particularly when the regions are already muscular in life sciences and health innovation. Indeed, the North is a surprisingly big player across the life science sector, one that contributes £17bn to GDP and employs 600,000 people.
You can see why historically the North has been at a disadvantage as there has been a virtuous circle of ‘pump priming’ for the golden triangle in the past; both government and private companies have traditionally and naturally followed the brains in the South-East.
That is no longer the case. Together the Northern regions now attract 20% of total private sector investment into the health and life science industries, a figure which is proportionately higher than for other regions. That’s why the IPPR – and Northern academics – are arguing there should be an increase in funding to match that of the private sector to try to catch-up with the rest of the country. As well as more funding, the IPPR also suggests the Department for International Trade government do more to help attract more foreign investors into the region, particularly post-Brexit when EU funding may slip, as it goes out about courting more US, Asian and Commonwealth trading partners.
The Northern universities may not have as many glittering prizes as Cambridge or Oxford, or at least not yet. For there is pioneering and world-leading research work being done across the region whether its on ageing in Newcastle or tropical medicine in Liverpool.
There are less likely bright spots – Cheshire is creating an innovative private sector now based on the old AstraZeneca site at Alderley Park while health technology and health economics are going great guns in Humber, Leeds, Sheffield and York.
The region is a also a leader in clinical medicine – not always for the right reasons as the 15m population suffer from many of the most chronic diseases for all the wrong reasons. As it is, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester are ranked in the top 20 for outcomes in clinical and industry-sponsored trials, another reason why the area is so attractive to private companies. Lower property and labour costs are another bonus.
What’s fascinating about the how the health and life sciences industry has developed in the North is that the government is behind the curve. Usually private investors follow central funding, but here the reverse is true: the government is lagging the market. Compared to the big bucks going on HS2 and other huge infrastructure projects, spending another £100m or so on the North’s health research funding would be money well-spent because of the multiplier effect. If people feel better and live longer they will be more creative and productive; health breeds wealth.