The much-vaunted scheme to drive and spread healthcare innovation across the country risks slipping into a “self-defeating spiral”, senior figures have warned after NHS England slashed its budget.

Warnings about the impact of budget cuts on the 15 academic health science networks come from several of their senior members.

The networks, launched amid much fanfare by NHS England last May, are expected to bring together NHS, private sector and academic organisations.

And the budget cut is revealed in NHS England’s 2014-15 business plan, which shows that AHSNs will receive £53.6m this financial year.

NHS England insists this is just a 5 per cent cut on last year’s budget. However, it represents a larger 23 per cent cut on the £70m NHS England told HSJ last May that it had set aside for the programme in 2013-14.

Multiple AHSN figures told HSJ the programme was now “in limbo”.

One senior AHSN figure said NHS England risked “castrating” the programme by cutting the budget and by a perceived lack of promotion in the networks.

“They are trying to save a comparatively small amount of money [by cutting the budget] but in doing so they risk castrating the AHSNs,” they added.

“Commissioners are not going to sign up to us if they are thinking that we are not going to be around in two years’ time.”

Sir Peter Dixon, chair of London AHSN Imperial College Health Partners, and its managing director Adrian Bull, urged NHS England to send a signal that AHSNs would be back for the mid to long term.

Dr Bull told HSJ  he would not “cavil” about the “modest” amount of funding on offer as he appreciated the need to “share the pain” with the rest of the healthcare system in times of austerity.

But he added: “The real issue is giving a strong signal to the system that that model of funding will be maintained over a sufficient period of time, [five years], so all AHSNs can become strongly established and start to show the benefits that they will bring which won’t occur in six months.

“If that signal is not there strongly, there will be a self-defeating spiral in which the rest of the system perhaps won’t engage as fully.”

Sir Peter pointed to Imperial’s projects on driving better outcomes for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and cardiovascular disease - the biggest cause of premature mortality in England.

These projects showed how AHSNs could make a profound impact on improving care. But in order to maximise the benefits, they needed sufficient backing from the rest of the healthcare system, including clinical commissioning groups and acute hospital trusts.

NHS England said it was “committed to funding AHSNs throughout the period of their five-year licence” but said the amount of support will be decided on a year-by-year basis.

A statement provided to HSJ said it was “untrue” to say that NHS England risked castrating the programme “by its lack of funding, promotion and support”.

“AHSNs are an important new element of the NHS ‘landscape’.

“They will be a vital link between the NHS, academia and industry, to drive the adoption and spread of research and innovation and contribute to the growth of local economies.