Fiona Ramsay meets Professor Cam Donaldson, the man behind the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health, to find out how the centre has grown six years after its launch.
More than two years before social entrepreneur and microcredit pioneer Professor Muhammad Yunus was installed as Chancellor, the links between social business and health were being cultivated by GCU.
The University appointed Professor Cam Donaldson, one of the world’s foremost health economists, to lead its new Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health in 2010.
Cam was charged with bringing together a team of researchers to further develop GCU’s reputation for allied health research and to evaluate the impact of social business creation on the lives and health of disadvantaged communities in Glasgow and beyond.
Arriving from the Institute of Health and Society at Newcastle University, Cam says he was attracted to GCU by the ability of a dynamic, modern university to make real advances in tackling stubborn and longstanding health problems in disadvantaged communities. “My own discipline of health economics and medical science in general were really successful, but the elephant in the room is the growing disparities in health,” he says. “There is an inherent contradiction there and I am less convinced about the ability of Russell Group universities to make inroads into that.”
Six years on and the Yunus Centre has grown from three to 35 people and has attracted multi-million pound research grants. Funded with a £210,000 grant from the Chief Scientist Office, Cam, along with colleagues Olga Biosca, Anwulika Umeh and Rachel Baker, is researching the potential for small loans, known as microcredit, to act as a health creator and generator of wellbeing. This brings a new ‘determinants of health’ perspective to the microcredit research field.
Cam’s team also secured nearly £2million from the Medical Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council to study the impact of social enterprise on the health and wellbeing of people and communities.
“The biggest achievement is to have created research capacity among a young and talented group of people that wasn’t there before,” he says. “If you look at the broader social business sector, that is a very important contribution − to have that substantial research grouping to partner with for studies. That a university like us can attract such significant ‘blue chip’ research funding as well is fantastic.”
The Yunus Centre also benefits from the support of Professor Yunus himself. Along with regular visits to the centre’s researchers and students, Cam also continues the engagement with Professor Yunus at events including the Global Social Business Summit and associated Social Business Academia Conference and the annual Social Business Day in Dhaka.
Cam studied for an MSc in Health Economics at the University of York before moving into health economics research positions. “I think I was good at economics because my mum was a comptometer [a key-driven mechanical calculator] operator and was good with numbers.
“I believed in economics and wanted to apply it in a public-sector area. My favourite lecturer, when I was an undergraduate at The University of Nottingham, said ‘you should try this health stuff!’ So that is what I did.”
He came home to Glasgow for the move to GCU, having been born in Springburn and brought up in Bishopbriggs. Cam’s family moved to Manchester when he was a teenager, and he is still a season ticket holder for Manchester City Football Club. “My dad was football daft, and took me to games all over Glasgow and Lanarkshire, so I never attached myself to any one team up here. When the family moved to Manchester, Denis Law was finishing his playing career at Manchester City. Well, that was it for me, but my choice caused much pain over the next 30 years!”
Cam is now looking towards the Research Excellence Framework 2020, following a strong performance in health research in REF 2014. “For REF 2020, we have to ensure outputs come from the University investment and from the research funding. Looking beyond REF 2020 is our main challenge, and that’s really about our sustainability. I think we do that by relying on fewer individuals to be successful, as people have ups and downs with grant success. We need a core of half a dozen people who are applying for grants from different sources. Good recent examples of that are Rachel Baker, who is now an MRC PI, and the success with European funding of Simone Baglioni.”
Dr Simone Baglioni, Reader in Politics, secured funding from the €80bn Horizon 2020 research and innovation framework programme for a three-year €2.5m project analysing the impact of the international economic crisis on groups which are most affected by socio-economic policy, such as immigrants, the unemployed or disabled.
Cam views the research-centre model as one that can be sustained by GCU. “I think the University should have the ability to do this another three or four times in unique, niche areas, that the conservative Russell Group universities don’t have the ability or the patience to do because they are locked into a research treadmill driven by the REF, as opposed to being truly innovative and allowing REF outcomes to follow on from that.”
He views the new Strategy 2020 and focus on the University for the Common Good as “substantial, timely and great for the University”.
“I think, beyond the University, it also really resonates with people. We have shown you can build research and prestige alongside such a vision.
What we need to do now is get people to coalesce their research around more of those societal challenges posed by the Strategy.”