Good public health is central to the success of our cities, nations and regions. It’s an area in which higher education has a key role to play, since working to address local and global health challenges and develop cutting-edge drug therapies is deeply rooted within academic institutions. Yet universities are still an underused resource in tackling local public health problems.
The main obstacle is the absence of organisations that connect universities and the NHS. In the UK, there are just six Academic Health Science Centres, which bring together research, education and clinical practice to translate research swiftly into patient care and ensure that patient interactions contribute to the generation of new knowledge. These AHSCs are not spread evenly around the country: three are in London, and one in Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester.
Part of the problem is that although collaboration between academics is the norm within universities, there is sometimes tension between universities and research institutes. Competition – rather than collaboration – is too often the default setting. A recent report from the King’s Commission on London [pdf], which looked at practical solutions to improve the lives of Londoners, called for better coordination and collaboration across the city’s research infrastructure to reap the benefits of its concentration of expertise and resource.
There are some examples of good practice: in London, the Francis Crick Institute brings together universities and biomedical research centres, while MedCity promotes the life sciences cluster in the south-east. And some institutions are starting to think big when it comes to research partnerships. Pathways to Equitable Healthy Cities is a major new Wellcome-funded initiative running in 10 cities across four continents. It hopes to achieve a step change in urban health, especially among vulnerable populations.
A commitment to ensuring the health and wellbeing of local communities is fundamental to every university’s purpose
Equally, within their communities, universities are on the frontline of local health issues. The University of Liverpool is a lead partner in the Liverpool Obesity Research Network alongside local NHS trusts. Academics from UWE Bristol, the University of Bath and University of Bristol are working with clinicians, commissioners and older people to improve activity and health in later life. Across London, universities’ air-quality research is interrogating the impact of poor air on health, and making real-time data on air quality accessible to Londoners.
Universities also have the potential to improve health through providing expertise that can connect the layers of trusts, providers and commissioners that make up the complex architecture of Greater London’s health service. Linking data across these different layers would streamline interactions and improve patients’ experience. Developing these systems is not beyond the combined brain power of London’s universities. Indeed, this month will see the first phase of investment to establish Health Data Research UK, a £30m fund bringing together six sites, comprising 22 UK universities and research institutes, to make game-changing public health improvements by harnessing data science at scale. Further progress will take sustained leadership from the mayor of London.
While not all universities have medical faculties, a commitment to ensuring the health and wellbeing of local communities is fundamental to every university’s purpose. In the run-up to our 200th anniversary, King’s College London has set out its ambition to be a modern civic university at the heart of London. This recognises the symbiotic value of working in partnership not only with other universities, but with London and Londoners too.
Successful strategies for change require a blend of collaboration and leadership. Universities need to listen to the challenges in their area, and combine academic insights with lived experience to develop lasting solutions. If our cities are living laboratories, then the people within them are not just the subjects of research, they can help create knowledge too.
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