A glance at the events already confirmed in my diary for 2014 tells you everything you need to know about the priorities this year compared to last.
Events hosted by one or more of the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Care and Research (CLAHRCs) and new Local Clinical Research Networks (CLRNs), dominate. Regional and local patient group meetings feature large as well and are increasing in number all the time.
Localism is well and truly beating at the door of these organisations. Whereas before they (or their predecessors) were used to playing to national agendas and seeking international reputations. Now they must demonstrate that they are also serving local needs and local partners. It might well have been in their brief before. But it was conveniently forgotten or, at best, poorly demonstrated.
Are they ready to listen to the voices of local people? I fear not.
Do they all have the aptitude and skills to do so? Not on your life.
Inevitably they will be tempted to look for surrogates – whether providers or commissioners – to give them the aura of being locally rooted. Just as these surrogates will lean heavily on the research infrastructure so that they can demonstrate that they are meeting their duties to promote and advance research.
AHSNs, CLAHRCs and CLRNs, are about to ‘enjoy’ forced cohabitation in defined geographies with these bedfellows. For some that will feel like going on a camping holiday with once distant acquaintances to find there is only one tent.
If 2013 was about NIHR finishing the job of renewing and building its infrastructure then, now, it’s about making sure all the bits fit together as one, that the desired convergence with the NHS does not end up looking like Jackson Pollock’s picture of the same name. Collaboration must be the priority. Some will fall out of the tent. Others will make it work. The better ones will break the rules and realise there is nothing stopping them from staying in a B&B.
At the moment I see too many separate interests jockeying for position; dialogue but no common purpose or agreement on the bottom line. This has be expressed in terms of what it means for the local population as much as it speaks to any national imperatives or international agendas. For with local identity comes local responsibility as well.
For patients and the public the best thing you can do is be visible and make our agenda unmissable as the above plays out. Do not wait for it to settle, for then the deal will have been done.
Make new contacts or strengthen existing ones with patient and public colleagues. There is much truth in the saying ‘strength in numbers.’ And our numbers are growing every day. Pick up the phone, send an email. Make the connections. It is these that will help UK health research find their local feet.
My best wishes for 2014.