With the first academic health science networks set to appear in 2012, Robert McGough asks how they will work and what the challenges will be in creating them

Academic health science networks are intended to be an effective partnership of organisations linked into shared cultures, looking to spread learning, leadership and innovation to raise standards and qualities across the network.

Initial expressions of interest for the creation of the networks were submitted in July and the deadline for the submission of business plans is 30 September. The intention is that we will begin to see networks emerging by May 2013. Once AHSN designation has been achieved, the intent is that they will hold a five-year licence. It is likely that there will be between 12 and 18 AHSNs across the country.

‘The challenge for the aspirant AHSN is to decide how to create organisations which can successfully exploit innovation at greater speed and scale than previously’

The idea of AHSNs is that they can develop links across disciplines and establishments and engage with industry in a way which has not taken place previously. There are six key functions of AHSNs set out in the guidance from the Department of Health, which are:

  • Research participation;
  • Translating research and learning into practice;
  • Education and training;
  • Service improvement;
  • Information; and
  • Wealth creation


The AHSNs are being created in addition to the existing Academic Health Science Centres. Five AHSCs were created in 2009 in response to other international Academic Health Centres though the intention appears to be that AHSNs are clearly separate to the existing centres. However, it would be likely that any AHSNs which cover the local area of a centre would need to engage with it.

In addition, the centres are more defined by the development of excellence whereas AHSNs have been described as looking to focus more on a safe environment for innovation and the implementation of these ideas through a large number of organisations working together in a broad partnership (over a much larger area).

Governance and finance

The governance and finance behind AHSNs is not clearly set out at present and this will present a key challenge for organisations which have submitted a proposal to create an AHSN.

For example, there is an important need to involve industry within the network but this must be measured against ensuring that its role does not create inappropriate conflicts and therefore networks may look to design different models for industry representation within the organisation.

Download the government’s AHSN guidance

The suggestion is that the AHSN will be formed through incorporated bodies with a corporate board to lead the structure. This will then lead into a coherent governance structure between all of the constituent members which form part of the network as well as linkages with research organisations and bodies such as the local education and training board.

Further key issue for the AHSNs is they need clarification on their funding. There has been a suggestion that the funding could come from the NHS Commissioning Board but networks may also want to look to their own members for start-up funding and there will need to be further clarity on precise nature of the funding requirement and ability of AHSNs to generate additional income.                                                                                                                                                                                   

AHSNs will be required to collaborate closely in a “network of networks” which would look to create a national interface. An emerging concern around the creation of the AHSNs is how the model works within the confines of competition law.

Easier route

While further guidance is expected on this point there will need to be consideration by bodies looking to submit proposals for AHSNs that their arrangements do not create anti-competitive agreements or cartels which would potentially be prohibited under the Competition Act.

The concern here is heightened given the nature and scope of the different bodies which will be involved within the AHSNs both from the public and private sector.

The intention is that all NHS organisations should look to be affiliated to their local AHSN. The AHSN can then provide an easier route to progress NHS innovation through a closer working relationship with industry to assess, commercialise and adopt health technologies/innovations at a much faster rate.

The challenge for the aspirant AHSN is to decide how to create organisations which can successfully develop and exploit innovation at greater speed and scale than has been seen previously while at the same time managing the issues over collaboration, governance, finance and competition which will be facing the Network.

While there is a limited timescale to produce the business plans it is important that AHSNs address these issues at an early stage to avoid over-complicating their structures or limiting their opportunities to develop in the future.

Robert McGough is a lawyer at DAC Beachcroft LLP