HSJ has produced the first national audit of progress made by the NHS’s academic health science networks amid suggestions that the new bodies could take on far more expansive roles than originally envisaged.

Our research reveals the indicative funding the 15 networks have been allocated; their areas of focus; staffing levels; leaders’ names; and which public and private organisations and universities they are working with.

The analysis comes as NHS England prepares to amend its innovation policy with an update of the 2011 policy document Innovation, Health and Wealth, which is due next month.

HSJ understands Simon Stevens, who takes up his role as NHS England chief executive in April, is enthusiastic about AHSNs and is open to them playing significant roles in service reorganisation, a concept backed by senior health policy figures.

The 15 networks were first proposed in 2011 to drive and disseminate innovation across the NHS in England. Their remit was to promote collaboration, connect the public sector with local industry and coordinate projects selected on the basis of local need and capability.

NHS England announced in May that all 15 had been granted licences and a share of a £70m pot, although it is hoped the networks will be self-funding in the future. Thirteen of the 15 networks revealed to HSJ their indicative allocations, which total £45.4m. Grants were £2.4m to £5.1m, averaging £3.5m. 

Two networks, West Midlands and Imperial College Health Partners, had not disclosed as their funding as HSJ went to press.

NHS England declined to comment on what is happening to any of the £70m pot that has not been given to AHSNs.

The networks are focusing on a range of national clinical priorities, as well as more commercial goals, with Greater Manchester planning to generate £1bn worth of economic growth.

Networks named about 30 different priorities between them. Seven named mental health as a priority. Dementia, cancer and conditions associated with the frail elderly were each selected by five.

The networks are at varying stages of development, with those built on the back of academic health and science centres − bodies set up under the Labour government to stimulate research − more advanced than those that started from scratch.

Many of the networks are being set up as not for profit, limited companies so they are independent of NHS trusts and not accountable to trust boards. One senior figure said it was the easiest way for them to interact with academia, other parts of the NHS and the private sector.

UCL Partners Academic Science Partnership, which has evolved from an AHSC, already has 113 staff, while Wessex AHSN has just two staff to date.

Nigel Edwards, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund, said that as well as driving innovation, the networks could play a strategic role in “making decisions about where services are located”, akin to that played by strategic health authorities.

This is some way beyond the role suggested in Innovation, Health and Wealth, which said AHSNs would “align education, clinical research, informatics, innovation, training and education and healthcare delivery”.

“The system does not have strategic leadership and the AHSNs could fill the gap left by the SHAs,” Mr Edwards said.

“They have some seriously influential figures involved, with credibility academically and in terms of management expertise.”

Robert Winter, managing director of the Eastern AHSN and a leading figure in devising AHSN policy, expressed optimism about their potential.

“AHSNs could play a role in service integration,” he said. “Where you have a combination of clinicians, academics, patients and commissioners working together to innovate and improve it can prove to be unstoppable.”

UPDATED 12/11/13: West Midlands Academic Health Science Network has now provided information and the table has been updated accordingly.