Patients - a real virtue in biomedical innovation

Government science policies focus on developing links with industry but that is not the only place fruits of academic research can be applied. Jenny Gristock reports

April 17, 1998

A hidden research network based on United Kingdom hospitals that could be as important for innovation as collaborations between business and academia has been uncovered by researchers Diana Hicks and Sylvan Katz of the Science Policy Research Unit.

Hicks and Katz call this web of links, neglected by analysts and in government policy, the biomedical innovation system. Within it, collaborative partnerships involving UK hospitals, medical research institutes, non-profit organisations and research councils stimulate exploitation of the science base.

The duo developed a database, using information from co-authored papers to track research links in science. By looking at patterns of co-authoring in papers published in the 1980s, they have found two groups of sectors that collaborated with each other more than expected. In the first group, researchers from government, industry and universities were seen to be working together. In the second, authors from hospitals, some medical research institutes, non-profit organisations and research councils collaborated.

The researchers say that companies, as "sites of application" of research, seek to link up with sources of technical opportunity - universities and government laboratories. Similarly, hospitals make connections with sources of biomedical technical opportunity: non-profit organisations, certain research institutes (special health authorities and institutes of the former British Postgraduate Medical Federation Institutes), research councils and universities.

The researchers distinguish between hospitals and universities, despite the fact that many hospitals are attached to universities, because "doctors can't be trained from textbooks and blackboards alone". The crucial element of patient contact gives hospitals a separate identity, which defines them as both users and sources of technical opportunity.

"Most analyses of interactions between users and sources of technical opportunity examine only industrial collaborations," says Katz, a senior fellow at SPRU. "This is unfortunate because the biomedical system is quite different: hospitals contribute more substantially to the science base than companies, and, of course, biomedical research needs access to patients."

Hicks and Katz point out that while hospitals use research results to improve treatment, universities rarely apply the results of their research internally.

They illustrate this using a parallel with engineering departments. "Sometimes engineering training is said to be inadequate. But if engineering departments were intermingled with companies to help their students solve real-world problems, those companies would not become universities," say Hicks and Katz.

Hospitals, special health authorities and postgraduate medical institutions are responsible for approximately a quarter of all British scientific output. The SPRU research indicates that the hidden biomedical research network to which they belong stimulates the innovative application of British science, but their contribution to the UK's capacity to innovate is not well understood. "The 1993 white paper, Realising Our Potential, doesn't even mention them," says Katz. And yet, he points out, the role played by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori in causing stomach ulcers, a major surprise in recent medical discovery, was uncovered by a medical doctor working in a hospital.

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