Real commitment to research is still lacking in most National Health Service (NHS) Trusts, and this must be changed if the culture of innovation, which the Service needs so badly, is to develop, according to Professor Sir John Bell, chairman of the Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research (OSCHR).

However, Sir John adds that he would expect this to change if the right incentive structure is put in place within the NHS. “Targets relating to research, such as increasing the number of patients participating in clinical trials, should be included in any future NHS Operating Framework or equivalent. Providing hospital management with such incentives could rapidly convert the NHS into the greatest UK asset in translational research,” he says.

Sir John makes his comments in OSCHR’s first progress report, which is published this week. The Office was established 22 months ago, following Sir David Cooksey’s review of UK health research funding which called for better co-ordination of health research activities across the UK and a stronger focus on translating basic science into improved care for NHS patients.

Launching the report, Sir John commented that the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), together with the Departments of Health in Scotland and Wales, “are making very real progress developing and implementing a co-ordinated translational programme that, globally, is unequalled.”

However, in his foreword to the report, Sir John says a number of areas need more work and attention in the immediate future. One is communication – “many of our stakeholders remain uncertain about what the OSCHR process has been since its inception” – and another is commercial interactions. The MRC and NIHR are already establishing new interactions with industry in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, devices, diagnostics, informatics and services, and the Office will undertake further work to ensure the commercial sector is fully engaged in developing joint programmes, he says, adding: “many such programmes are new and will take time to cement their industrial links.”

Nevertheless, there are already important successes, he says; the clinical trial networks are increasingly being accessed by industry; there are new initiatives targeting the diagnostics industry; discussions are being held with the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) about new collaborative programmes; and the Health Innovation Challenge Fund, a new partnership between the Wellcome Trust and the Department of Health, has been established.

National Ambitions for Health

The progress report notes that earlier this month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown asked for a set of National Ambitions for Health research to be developed to build on the progress so far and encourage the translation of major research breakthroughs into new NHS treatments and services. The National Ambitions will be developed independently of government by the research funding bodies, under the auspices of OSCHR, in consultation with the academic community.

- The Department of Health’s budget for health research is set to rise to £1 billion by 2010-11, and most of this will be delivered through the NIHR.