A stronger push behind translational research that leads to patient or population benefit is at the heart of a new healthcare research strategy published by the Scottish government.

One symptom of this effort is the replacement of Scotland’s Biomedicine and Therapeutics Research Committee with an Experimental and Translational Medicine Research Committee (ETMRC). The committee’s working practices are being “reviewed and revised to support the research community to increase the translational aspect of research”, the strategy notes.

Patient benefit and improving population health are pivotal to the updated strategy, and “the returns on the investment of public money will be measured first and foremost in these terms”, the document states, adding that “significant economic benefits are also expected and some successes will be more immediately measured in this way”.

The report, Investing in Research/Improving Heath: the research strategy for health and healthcare, says the overarching ambition is “to place Scotland at the international forefront of clinical translational research and the development of systems medicine”. Much has been achieved already: for example, Scotland makes up only 8.5% of the overall UK population yet an estimated one in eight life scientists work in the region.

At the same time, the report argues, Scotland needs to build on its past successes, focus on excellence and continue developing both capacity and capability in key skills and disciplines. Moreover, “[we] must ensure strong and productive partnerships amongst funders and funded alike and we must look beyond our borders to work with the best in the world”, it states.

One focus of the strategy is to value and invest in National Health Service research to ensure that the NHS provides high-quality structures to support clinical research. This includes better systems to guarantee smooth and efficient approval processes in the NHS, drawing more effectively on an “excellent” science base, and improving the time taken for research findings to affect healthcare practice.

“While good progress has been made in recent years, much remains to be done and will be a focus for effort over the five-year life of this strategy,” the report comments. Objectives to this end include creating an efficient and effective national portal through which clinical trials may be negotiated, costed and progressed on a Scotland-wide basis; and strengthening the system of co-ordinated R&D management approval, so that decisions by autonomous Health Boards are accepted and not revisited by other Health Boards.

The Chief Scientist Office (CSO), which published the health research strategy for Scotland, intends to use the Scottish representatives of the 26 NIHR Specialty Groups as the focal point for co-ordinating research activity across Scotland. These groups are the topic-specific component of the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR) Comprehensive Clinical Research Network, bringing together key researchers in specific topic areas across the UK to provide insight into the management and delivery of priority research studies.

National infrastructure

Among Scotland’s achievements to date in establishing a strong and harmonised national infrastructure for research in the NHS has been concentrating the Scottish Research Ethics Service in four regional hubs. This has significantly improved the delivery of ethics approvals and support in Scotland, the report says.

Moreover, the recent transfer of responsibility for site-specific assessment from local Research Ethics Committees to Health Board R&D Departments “points the way to how closer inter-agency operating can reduce duplication and streamline handling”, it adds. Current ethics approval times are averaging 49 days, well within the government’s 60-day target.

Also in place is a new system for streamlined R&D approvals of multicentre studies, operating under the banner of NHS Research Scotland (NRS). With this system, cross-Scotland approvals are arranged through the same four regional hubs as for ethics approvals, each working in collaboration with their neighbouring Health Boards. Consideration and approval of generic issues is managed on behalf of all the Boards and co-ordinated for researchers through a NRS Co-ordinating Centre, based in Aberdeen.

According to the research strategy report, the co-ordinated approvals system has already reduced duplication of functions and has “made a start” at streamlining R&D approval times. The initial aim is to approve 95% of multicentre studies within 60 days of receipt of the complete document set, falling to 30 days by June 2010.

The full report on Scotland’s updated health research strategy may be downloaded from the Chief Scientist Office’s website at www.cso.scot.nhs.uk.