Universities need to work more openly with each other and the life sciences industry to make the UK an attractive place to do research.
That is the view of Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research’s Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI), who said jobs could be lost without a “culture change” by scholars and pharmaceutical companies.
Mr Samuels said universities and drug companies needed to put their heads together earlier in the research process to shape the direction of medical science.
The government established the NIHR in 2006 to distribute almost £1 billion a year earmarked for academic research in the NHS in England. NOCRI awards almost half of this total to support activities including biomedical research centres, which are partnerships between universities and NHS trusts.
Mr Samuels, who previously worked in industry, said that the traditional drug discovery model is “not working well”. Many pharmaceutical firms have “good drug assets” but “do not always know the basic mechanisms of disease”. Academics can offer “world-class knowledge” of these mechanisms, he added.
“We need to move away from an outmoded model of academics on one side and industry on the other, and move towards…a much more collaborative way of working,” he told Times Higher Education.
He accepted that this collaborative approach would require academic institutions to be “open-minded”, trusting that all parties will act with integrity.
But a change in attitudes was vital if the UK were to remain “an attractive place for that research to be done, because otherwise it could be done in the US, emerging markets and other countries. Ultimately [this] would mean jobs will be lost from the UK.”
NIHR investment has been credited with boosting the scores of medical and life sciences academics in the 2014 research excellence framework, and Mr Samuels said that the “pace and scale” of change in the field since the NIHR was set up had been “enormous”.
He added that some life sciences companies had a “very up to date view” of the changes to applied research in the UK and were “reaping the rewards…Many of them are partnering with universities and NHS trusts that are NIHR-funded.”
But others, particularly those with headquarters outside the UK, were not always aware of the improvements made in recent years, a common disparity “when change is very rapid and large scale”.
Mr Samuels added: “The NIHR story is not one that has been widely told…We need to blow our own trumpet louder.”