Reaching 60 is often associated with people slowing down and beginning to feel their age. Britons, for instance, are entitled to a free bus pass. But their universal health-care system, the National Health Service (NHS), which celebrates its 60th birthday on 5 July, is broadly considered to be in better shape now than it was at its half-centenary — even though baby boomers are greyer and new medicines are dearer. Scrapping it and switching to a private system would be unthinkable.

NHS-bashing has become a UK national pastime, and shortcomings are inevitable in what is one of the world's five biggest employers. But Britons who use the service regularly judge it more positively than those who mainly talk about it. British newspapers are often rife with reports of bad management, but a recent survey showed 91% of 17 million hospital inpatients rated their care as good, very good or excellent. And although the NHS sometimes fares badly in surveys that focus on how well specific illnesses are treated, probably the most thorough evaluation of late — a six-country study of equity, efficiency, quality, access, and long and productive patient lives by independent foundation the Commonwealth Fund — ranked it top, above the health-care systems of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand and the United States.

Scientific research has been a core goal of the NHS since its foundation — but one might be forgiven for not knowing it. For years, the funds for research have been distributed within the regional health-care deliverers in a system that might have been designed to obstruct collaboration with universities and drugs companies. All credit, then, to the NHS's director-general of research and development, Sally Davies. With the creation of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), a virtual body within the NHS, Davies has dragged the funds into the daylight. By 2011, these are expected to amount to about £1 billion (US$2 billion).

In its attention to researchers' careers, networks and collaborations, and to transparent indicators of achievement, Davies' Best Research for Best Health programme is helping to transform the research landscape. Plans include virtual organizations to link universities, hospitals and industry; ten 'academic health centres' resembling US university hospitals, through which researchers will be able to conduct studies on patients more easily; and somewhere between 15 and 50 'health innovation and educational clusters', which the government hopes will speed up procedural innovation, promising better funding for academics who get involved. Meanwhile, NIHR collaboration with the Medical Research Council, after a fractious start, is beginning to make progress.

Perhaps the most significant move for biomedical science at the NHS lies in opening up the ocean of patients' data that the organization has collected over the decades. Public consultations are now beginning that, favourable soundings suggest, will lead to ways by which researchers can readily find appropriate patients for research and clinical trials, and can gain access to data whose sources are anonymized but traceable subject to the patient's permission. In particular, the national extent and depth of those data will provide researchers in academia and industry with a globally unique resource for highly targeted studies and clinical trials — a key element of translational medicine.

Such an information system will rightfully evoke worries about privacy. In the future, those concerns will become more sensitive as genetic testing becomes more predictively powerful. Yet, at the same time, as that era blossoms, it will bring the risk-pooling benefits of universal health-care to the fore. As long as people do not have to share genetic data with private insurers, as is the case in the United Kingdom until at least 2014, those who anticipate bad health will do well to buy insurance cover. The genetically lucky, meanwhile, might as well save money and rely on the state. This will squeeze private insurers, suggesting that the NHS's golden period may be yet to come.