I have been working in and around England’s National Health Service (NHS) for much of my life. Since its creation in 1948, it has offered a comprehensive service available to all and free of charge, principles that quickly cemented its position as one of the fundamental pillars of our country. I can’t think of any other health system in the world that could make it onto an Olympic opening ceremony, for example.
I work for the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), which is responsible for clinical research in the NHS across England. Its annual budget of more than £1 billion makes it the world’s second largest funder of health research. As managing director of the NIHR Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI), my role is to lead efforts to simplify access to England’s clinical research infrastructure and ensure that our biomedical research facilities work together effectively.
Collaborate to innovate
Soon after I started this job I had dinner with the directors of several leading research centres. In England we are blessed with many world-class institutions, representatives of which were sitting across the table from me – from Oxford and Cambridge and from London’s Imperial College, Kings College and University College. We were there to discuss the importance of collaboration – a somewhat odd topic given the intense competition that often exists between the various centres, not only on the sporting field but also to attract the best students, funding, and so on.
But what we were focused on was where they could pool their respective resources and work together. The conversation shifted to HIV and there was clear agreement that there wasn’t enough research going on into how to eradicate the virus. We agreed that this would be a shared priority going forward and they have – for the first time – shared a medical research grant between all five institutions, enabling them to do science that they just couldn’t do otherwise. Shared resources lead to stronger results – they all have different capabilities that, when combined, are very powerful.
This is just one example but it demonstrates the crystal clear link that exists between health research and public impact. After all, we all have a stake in seeing new advances in medicines and technology as illness or disease can strike anyone, anytime.
Obviously our prime purpose is to improve health research. However, science plays a critical role in the economy. It is the country’s capabilities that enable us to compete by producing high-value products. Right from the outset, we’ve had front of mind how we make sure we improve the health of the nation and the wealth of the nation. So, for example, we do considerable work to make England an attractive place for life sciences companies of all shapes and sizes to invest in doing their research. When I started in 2010, the NIHR research infrastructure generated £33m of investment from industry in this country. Last year it generated £130 million.
Our primary focus is what we describe as ‘infrastructure’. This refers, for example, to the biomedical research units and centres in the nation’s leading teaching hospitals and universities which do world-leading research. It is these capabilities and this know-how that makes our country such an attractive destination for research and investment. I’m a former executive in the life sciences industry – I used to work for Roche Diagnostics – and this has given me a useful insight into what criteria they look for.
Our coordinating function – something that is unique internationally – is a key component of our approach. For example, in early-phase clinical research, NOCRI provides connections to the country’s experimental medicine experts, who can help companies understand the potential of their developmental drugs, devices and diagnostics. And then in later-phase research, we offer rapid links to our Clinical Research Network in order to ensure efficient and effective delivery of larger and multi-centre clinical studies. All this helps shorten the time it takes to develop new therapies and technologies.
We haven’t just invested in infrastructure and scientists, we provide route of access to them – which makes life much easier. The US, for example, is blessed with tremendous scientific expertise – Harvard, MIT, and so on – but there isn’t anywhere that can coordinate it all or draw together the best of each of those centres in a particular area. But through NOCRI we have the capability to organise and aggregate these capabilities nationally and this definitely helps bring more business into the country, ultimately leading to new jobs, investment and economic growth.
It is crucial for all of us to squeeze the maximum value and output from our resources. Our coordinating and aggregating role helps these centres get the most from the investment that has gone in or, in other words, maximise the potential public impact that all at NOCRI are focused on achieving.
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