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On the road: MRC regional meetings

by Guest Author on 6 Mar 2020

At least once a year, the MRC’s Council hits the road and heads to a different area of the UK to learn about MRC-funded research in the region. Council member Dr Roger Highfield explains the importance of MRC’s regional meetings, and shares his experience of the latest, held at the University of Manchester.

Decades ago, studies of Whitehall civil servants revealed that the lower you are in the social hierarchy, the higher your risk of illness and death.

Sir Michael Marmot, the MRC Research Professor who conducted that pioneering work, made headlines again last week by reporting that life expectancy has fallen over the last decade in parts of England, particularly among women in deprived communities and the north.

I can’t think of a more dramatic way to underline the many facets of ‘place-based’ research, from the wise use of research investment to help boost local economic growth to finding the underlying factors behind health inequalities.

Dr Roger Highfield

Dr Roger Highfield

That is the reason why I and other members of the MRC’s Council – which advises Prof Fiona Watt, Executive Chair – ensure we have at least one meeting outside London each year.

This week we were guests of Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and VC of the University of Manchester, where we were given a unique opportunity to engage with MRC-funded staff, along with researchers at the university and beyond, to get deeper insights into local strengths and research priorities. We also held a grant writing workshop with 40 early career researchers.

Seeking new insights into health inequality is likely to remain a priority. In 2004, Sir Michael told me there was little evidence that the Government’s efforts to reduce inequalities between rich and poor were having much impact. That remains true today: for the first time in more than a century, life expectancy has failed to increase across the country, and is declining for women in the worst-off decile on the index of multiple deprivation.

We know from studies of primates, from civil servants to olive baboons, that the further down the hierarchy one goes, the higher the chronic elevated levels of stress hormones that marshal the body’s resources to meet threats but also inhibit repair mechanisms and dampen the immune system, with harmful effects on the health of blue-collar workers.

We also know that the conditions in which we are born and live are the key drivers of health and health inequalities. In Manchester, the innovative SIPHER consortium – a centre for Systems science In Public Health Economic Research led by Prof Petra Meier  with Dr Robin Purshouse  –   launched last year to understand and influence the social economic and environmental factors that affect health as part of a £25 million funding programme from the UK Prevention Research Partnership.

The proponents of SIPHER like to say that they are seeking a shift in thinking from public health policy to healthy public policy. That is why the consortium is backed by a formidable partnership consisting of four charities; four research councils; and four health and social care departments.

We heard about ground-breaking work in the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership  where, for example, children and young people are being asked about their experiences of going to A&E to help improve emergency care, individuals and teams have been recognised as champions of local wellbeing, and – with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and 10 councils – support for children from more deprived backgrounds. The mayor of Greater Manchester has also invited Sir Michael to work with them to make it a “Marmot region”.

There is plenty of exciting medical research around Manchester too: at the MRC Stoller Biomarker Discover Centre  the search is on for biomarkers that could be used to diagnose or inform treatment of diseases; the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation, named after the Manchester-born pioneer of women’s suffrage,  does fundamental research on inflammatory disease; and the MRC-Arthritis Research UK Centre for Integrated Research into Musculoskeletal Ageing is looking for ways to cut the deleterious effects of ageing.

The MRC funds a wide spectrum of research across the UK with other UKRI research councils, the National Institute for Health Research, charities, the NHS, industry and the eight most research-intensive universities in the north of the country – the so called ‘N8’.

Many more projects address the  health inequalities highlighted by Sir Michael in his research, much of which has been funded by the MRC, such as Born in Bradford,  which seeks the underlying causes of high levels of deprivation  and childhood ill health in Britain’s youngest city, the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit in Glasgow City Centre, or are emerging from efforts such as the Million Women Study.

The good news is that, as Sir Michael himself has acknowledged, practical evidence about how to reduce inequalities has built significantly since 2010 and we have gleaned considerable technical and practical experience about how to reduce health inequalities from studies in places such as Greater Manchester.

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