Roll out a title fight for City of Research

As the competition to make it onto the shortlist for City of Culture 2025 hots up, John Wright asks if it is time for a City of Research competition

John Wright is director of the Bradford Institute for Health Research and chief investigator for Born in Bradford

The City of Culture designation has demonstrated how the UK can celebrate its enviable track record for arts and culture that stretches from music to fashion. So how about a City of Research to celebrate its enviable track record for science and innovation?

The UK punches above its weight when it comes to arts and culture. Danny Boyle’s wonderful Olympic opening ceremony highlighted the country’s world-beating contributions and while it may have been incomprehensible to the international audience, it certainly lit home fires of pride.

One year after the London Olympics, Derry-Londonderry was awarded the inaugural City of Culture with an ambition to create “an opportunity to bring communities together, build local pride and develop new partnerships”.

From a stuttering start, the concept has cast off initial scepticism and become a celebration of local identity and pride, with Hull and then Coventry benefiting from their time in the cultural spotlight through greater investment, tourism, profile raising, and most importantly public participation in arts events. More than 20 “cities” applied for the City of Culture 2025 place, reflecting the popularity of the award.

Spotlight on science and innovation

The UK has an impressive science and research industry and the pandemic has reinforced its global position – from public health surveillance, gene sequencing, vaccine development, and new treatments.

Not unlike arts and culture, this intellectual wealth tends to be geographically clustered in the golden triangle of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. So is it time to spread the love and set up a City of Research competition?

Four years ago in Bradford, we unilaterally awarded ourselves the title of City of Research. I know. You’re thinking, hmmmm, Bradford. It wouldn’t be on my shortlist. What about Oxford? Cambridge? Bristol? London?

Well, fair enough. These cities have built impressive research infrastructures on the shoulders of generations of top scientists. However, research is not all about glass temples of laboratories or ivory towers of academics. Research is mostly about people.

Taking a leaf from the City of Culture ambition, shouldn’t a City of Research focus on “communities, local pride and new partnerships”? Perhaps an additional criterion for how the research has made an impact on the city whether this is from life or social sciences, physical or political sciences, engineering, or computing.

The Bradford experience

Bradford is the sixth biggest city in the UK with some of the highest rates of ill-health and lowest levels of healthy life expectancy. Yet paradoxically, until recently, it had very limited health research. It symbolised the inverse research law, whereby research is concentrated in the places that least needed it, while the poorest, sickest places in the country have little.

Fifteen years ago, we set up the Bradford Institute of Health Research – a partnership of NHS organisations, local authority, and local universities – to address this imbalance.

Without the years of investment in capital and researchers, we were the heavily sedated tortoise in this particular race. However, we focused on our strengths, our engagement with local communities and applied research that aimed to make a difference to people’s lives by changing policy and practice.

Today we have more than 50,000 Bradfordians actively engaged in our cohorts such as Born in Bradford and CARE75+ – from newborn babies to octogenarians. This is more than any other city in the world. Our newly launched Age of Wonder cohort of 30,000 teenagers will be the largest study of adolescents in the world.

These citizen scientists are helping to discover how our lifestyles and environment shape our health, design novel interventions to improve health and wellbeing, and unlock genetic and molecular clues to aid the development of new therapeutics.

Our ActEarly City Collaboratory provides a whole system population testbed where the public, interdisciplinary scientists, policy leaders, and practitioners work with each other to develop and test system-wide early life upstream prevention solutions (housing, urban design, transport education, welfare) supported by efficient platforms for rigorous evaluation.

During the pandemic, we pivoted our research talent to support our NHS and District Gold Commands, established the award-winning Covid Scientific Advisory Group – our very own Bradford SAGE – that provided modelling and analysis and produced some of the first evidence of the benefits of CPAP and the challenges of vaccine hesitancy.

Power of collaboration

This is research that is grounded in community co-production and citizen science. We are harnessing the power of routine public sector data through the Connected Bradford platform that links health, education, social care, emergency care, mental health, and environmental data. We want to show how this data can save lives.

Crucially, our research is embedded in policy and practice. Our NIHR Applied Research Collaboration and Wolfson Centre for Applied Health Research underpin our ambition to fulfil our strapline for “research that change a city”.

One of the crucial factors behind the success of City of Culture was the opportunity to bring the best artists from around the UK and the world to work in partnership with local talent to build a crucible of creativity.

So too with our City of Research. Key to our success has been the collaboration with partners from the leading academic centres in the UK, Europe, and the United States. Our City Collaboratory has provided the platform for world-class researchers to work with local communities and policy makers to make a difference.

We have shown the power of research to engage and inspire a city, and its utility to transform policy and practice. We are now joining up the circle by linking our City of Research with Bradford’s bid to become the City of Culture 2025 – exploring how important culture is to our mental health and wellbeing.

It is a model for how other cities can reap the benefits of community engagement in science, profile raising, and redistribution of research funding to places where need is greatest. Four years feels like an appropriate time to pass on our self-appointed crown to somewhere else. Do I hear any takers?

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