The Department of Health has asked for expressions of interest to form academic health science networks by 20 July.

The timetable announced last week would see the networks between NHS providers and universities designated by May 2013 and the DH expects between 12 and 18 of them across England.

Once designated, networks will hold a five-year licence.

The guidance said the six functions of AHSNs were “research participation, translating research and learning into practice, education and training, service improvement, information and wealth creation”.

Governance and funding arrangements for the networks are not yet clear but at a session at the NHS Confederation conference last week Sir Ian Carruthers said they could receive tens of millions of pounds worth of funding from the NHS Commissioning Board.

The DH guidance said it “envisaged” a corporate board to lead each network with an independent chair and accountable officer.

Sir Ian, who led the Treasury-mandated innovation, health and wealth review published last year, said the networks were not a way of engineering mergers and reconfiguration between trusts.

Responding to a question from a delegate he said they could do this if members wanted to but it was not the purpose of the networks.

Richard Gleave, who has been leading on the detail of developing AHSNs at the DH, said the department envisaged some AHSNs becoming “networks of networks”, and that this might help scale up networks that were not allied to existing academic health science centres.

England’s five AHSCs were created in 2009 with a similar brief to AHSNs and were intended to compete with international academic health centres like Boston and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

There had been concern from the existing AHSCs that they and AHSNs might be confused. The executive director of south London’s King’s Health Partners called for their roles to be distinct.

The guidance said AHSNs would not necessarily replace health innovation and education clusters, innovation hubs, collaborations for leadership in applied health research and care and other groups but that “local expressions of interest may want to set out the proposed local links between AHSNs and these bodies”.

Although the bodies have not yet been established the first network chief executive has been announced.

Chris Streather will be leading the south London network once he stands down from the top job at South London Healthcare Trust at the end of the month.

HSJ is aware of advanced plans for AHSNs in Bristol and the East Midlands. They are also likely to be created in any large regional teaching and research centre.