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Creating a national science hub

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It is far too easy to talk about the wisdom of hindsight, and I could not even begin to count how many times I have used the phrase, “I would not have started from here.”  When I was asked to chair the Programme Board for the Chrysalis Programme when PHE was still in shadow form at the beginning of the year, this was my first reaction.  However, in reflecting on the past nine months of work, new opportunities and ideas have arisen from what was a complicated history of this major capital programme, and we've ended up in a very different place to where we started.

The Chrysalis Programme was originally set up in 2007 by the Health Protection Agency to replace ageing specialist microbiology laboratories in a building at Porton Down that is over 60 years old but, through several iterations, a much larger programme was proposed that would bring together laboratories at Porton, Colindale and Whitechapel at a site in Harlow in 2012.  Government had reviewed this case and, quite rightly, asked for more detail on the costs and benefits of this option.

PHE took over running the Programme from the HPA in 2013 and commissioned an initial due diligence review led by Professor George Griffin, which concluded that “The plan to co-locate PHE activities on a single site provides a unique opportunity for establishing a Centre of National and International responsibility, leadership and training in Public Health,”  we decided to undertake a fundamental review of the vision and strategy that underpinned the programme.  The name “Chrysalis“ was no longer appropriate and so, after seeking suggestions, we decided on the Science Hub.

Although there are clear strengths associated with the HPA’s preferred option at Harlow, we need to test this against alternatives. Consequently, we have started a transparent engagement with staff and with our external partners including local government, commercial and academic partners and other government agencies.  The conclusions from this work will form the strategic case within a major business case that PHE will submit to the Department of Health in the summer of 2014, aiming for a final decision by end of September 2014.

It is clear that the programme is not about the feasibility of lifting and shifting a set of existing microbiology laboratories, but about ensuring that the expert national public health science services are fit for the future in, say, 15 and 20 years’ time.  Thus, the vision has been about how we organise our services and facilities to support the full range of responsibilities that sit with PHE, improving health & wellbeing and healthcare public health as well as protecting the public’s health from infectious disease.  Our starting point has been to recognise that the model of services in the future will not only be through a “national hub” – there is also the wider network of 115 premises that PHE currently operates from to consider. How do they get expert advice and support from the national scientific functions? With the advantages of technology and the expansion of “dry laboratories” dealing with “big data”, we have to ask ourselves what are the benefits of co-locating services and what are the benefits of  having several bases working together to create a “virtual hub”?

The work is not yet complete but we have had lots of different perspectives and views.  We commissioned a major report from RAND Europe to help us, and our emerging thinking is focusing on three areas:

  • "excel today and through the transition," so we ensure that any change provides safe and resilient services to handle local and national emergencies
  • “create for tomorrow,” recognising that this is about changing the way that we work with new technologies and new teams
  • “inspire a future generation,” as whatever services and functions are in the hub and in the network, the crucial factor in our success will be the skills and expertise of our staff in the future.

As the ideas start to take shape, we are in a different place from where we started.  We have four key themes emerging:

  • A national resource focused on “public health science” across all domains of public health that supports activities in PHE, the NHS and local government.
  • Linking together the specialist public health services with  research and commercial activities to contribute to innovation and wealth creation in the UK.
  • The national emergency response centre for the protecting the public’s health.
  • An international resource that supports work preventing global threats to the public’s health.

There is further debate and discussion to be held over the next few months but I am confident that by July next year we will know that this work has helped us create a clear and distinctive vision of how key national public health functions will support the local public health systems, not only over the next five years but for the next twenty years.

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  1. Comment by Bren posted on

    Hello Richard,

    Very late on replying to the Blog, but clear need to look at this in the long term and beyond bricks and mortar. I am not always sure getting people in the same building actually make communication, but creating the environment that PHE does to make this culture a reality is obvious to me.


  2. Comment by JM posted on

    For a national perspective of the nation's health then it is useful to have staff located across the country, bringing their own local views on health issues into play. Not sure that having all staff living and working in the same community (in and around a national science hub) would help with understanding the diversity of the nation's needs. The future, exploiting technology, has to be in the virtual hub, through investment of the existing, geographically separated, PHE locations, with focus on improving working connections.

  3. Comment by Richard Lewis posted on

    I fail to see how this will improve the work of the PHE and how it represents value for money. A major investment in a single site will require people to move from where they are settled and where they have their lives. It seems to me that function is being made to override people, when people are, of course, your most important asset.

    Not everyone will want to move and so the result could be the loss of key staff with considerable, important expertise in their respective fields. This will affect the aspirations and ambitions of the PHE in the short to medium term until that expertise is restored.

    As JM says the best and most sustainable option is to expand existing sites and use a virtual hub. This will give you access to a diversity of knowledge and staff, based where they want to live, with access to wider knowledge from nearby universities. Quality of life, diversity and choice is, and must be, a hallmark of successful employment policies.

    Bringing people together on one site is not going to result in a sudden improvement in communication; it is far better to invest in local, right-sized facilities that stimulate successful employee communities.