Presidential priorities: Dame Anne Johnson reflects on her new role

As Professor Dame Anne Johnson PMedSci steps into the role of Academy President, she shares what the Academy means to her and sets out her top priorities for the next four years.

 

Anne appeared on BBC Radio 4's The Life Scientific on Tuesday 2 February. Listen back here to hear about her life and work.

 

The Academy has flourished during the time of Professor Sir Robert Lechler FMedSci as President, especially over the last uncertain and difficult year. I thank him for the exceptional leadership he has shown.

My challenge now as incoming President is to continue to harness the power of the Academy to advance biomedical and health research for the benefit of patients, the public and society as a whole.

The  COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how central the Academy is to UK biomedical sciences and shown our strengths in the UK and internationally, as well as highlighting our role as a trusted voice of independent advice to government. We have drawn from our prestigious Fellowship and up-and-coming grant awardees, often alongside views from the public and patients, to produce evidence-based policy advice.

Our efforts to recover from the pandemic will, of course, dominate my early presidency. My background in public health, focus on interdisciplinary research, and work with cross-sectoral networks, from basic research to social science, will help with this. But more importantly it will be through using the real power of the Academy, our Fellows and our community of researchers at all career stages that I know we will get through this pandemic with the most useful lessons learnt.

On becoming President I have identified five priority areas for the coming years. I look forward to evolving these priorities through open conversations with those we work with and those we aim to support. These discussions will be central to a series of meetings with Fellows during my virtual tour of the UK in February and March 2021.

 

  1. An Academy that nurtures our future research leaders

As well as continuing the work of our COVID-19 career support space I want our mentoring programme to continue to flourish. Mentors provide the sort of independent advice that encourages researchers to stretch themselves and build the confidence to lead. I will also ensure that we listen to early and mid-career researchers, to use their voice to inform our work and bring them into the heart of our activities. The next generation of researchers is key to the success of science – the Academy has a vital role in supporting young researchers across disciplines and geographies. Our work must continue to help research careers thrive, and we will begin to provide further opportunities for collaborative working across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries to drive innovation and improve the health of the nation and beyond.

 

  1. A diverse Academy in touch with the biomedical and health research community

The Academy’s greatest asset is our Fellowship of over 1,300 experts who provide unparalleled access to a huge breadth of high-quality biomedical and health research. Individually, each is exceptional, but it is when Fellows are linked together that innovation, discovery and change occurs. I’d like to work collectively with the Fellows to grow the Academy’s public connections and communications, focusing on key issues such as trust in science.

Our Fellowship is not immune from the same biases we see in the rest of science and society. Our membership now better reflects the breadth of expertise within the biomedical research field than it did when we were founded 21 years ago, with small but vital improvements in our gender diversity and some increase in regional and topic representation. But there is still much to do for our Academy to truly reflect the society it serves and I want to make this an area of focus in the Academy’s next 10 year strategy – working with Fellows to overhaul our nomination processes so that we fully embed diversity in the Fellowship, in terms of geography and discipline as well as protected characteristics. Alongside this, I want to bring the Academy’s community of Fellows and early and mid-career researchers that we support together, to focus on how to encourage an inclusive research culture which will benefit everyone in society and strengthen us as an Academy.

Our community encompasses the whole range of biomedical disciplines, with the potential to unite to catalyse change and foster innovation. I want the Academy to be relevant to all those contributing to medical research and its translation, especially the currently smaller groups within our Fellowship such as core non-clinical disciplines and industry researchers. We must recognise and support a broader model of science itself. I want the Academy to push the boundaries of transdisciplinary working which is vital for breakthroughs and invention.

 

  1. An Academy with the courage to tackle society’s most difficult health challenges, at home and globally

The future of public health and society’s relationship with health services is understandably an important policy area for me. I will lead the Academy in helping build the UK’s capability in population and health science resilience. This will include using the Academy’s FORUM activities to help find solutions for intractable health challenges, by bringing together individuals and organisations from across academia, industry, the NHS and Government, and the charity, regulatory and wider healthcare sector.

So much of what we face in terms of health crises are global, not local, so I will ensure the Academy continues to work internationally to share knowledge, learn and foster innovation. We need to go beyond Europe to build a science base in all countries, on equal terms. This includes focussing on the health of all people across the globe and addressing how to move forward with global health security. There are many issues we need to tackle alongside the pandemic such as mitigating and adapting to the implications of climate change on human health; addressing global health inequalities and addressing antimicrobial resistance.                       

I look forward to creating a stronger voice with other UK national academies, devolved nations and working closely with health and science academies around the world. As the former Vice President International of the Academy, I am pleased to say we have great links with these organisations and nations. We must work together to connect the different elements that will protect the health of the public now, and in the future, and we must work with international academies to create a clearer global voice for science.

 

  1. An Academy giving status to public and patient voices

It is essential to involve the public in decision-making about research and care so that we can collectively protect and improve our health. The best way to do this is to work hand in hand with the communities we are working for to identify challenges, co-create solutions, develop effective messages and understand the best ways to share them. It is particularly important for me to hear both from younger voices and those from disadvantaged sectors of society, including those with disability or long term health challenges, who are sadly too often missing from discussions about health and wellbeing. We also need to move beyond our own community, to seek their views of what the contribution of science and the Academy should be. I am delighted to have been involved in recent work bringing the voices of young adults into the heart of the Academy’s COVID-19 discussions and look forward to working with people from this group more.

Connecting and engaging with the public through the media is a key role of the Academy President. This has never been more important when people are struggling to understand and interpret messages on COVID-19 through digital and traditional media. I am becoming more accustomed to regular interviews with journalists at national media outlets. However, I want to amplify the Academy’s voice and widen our reach beyond the media I am familiar with, to engage with younger generations that receive much of their news through social media.

 

  1. An Academy built on solid foundations with the resource to create a brighter future for all.

We are still a young Academy, but we have grown up fast and our youth provides us with the ability to be truly modern, bold and dynamic.

The ambitions above cannot be achieved without solid foundations. During my presidency I will work to ensure the Academy remains financially robust and stable. We are fortunate to be supported by a range of funders which is incredibly important to maintain our independence. We are in no way a well-off charity and do not have endowments that provide unrestricted income, yet we pack a big punch for our age and size, therefore fundraising will be a big priority for me. This must be across a range of sectors to ensure our independence and we will be looking to our Fellows and wider community for bright ideas on how we secure our own healthy future.

By focusing on these priorities, I believe the Academy stands the best chance of helping improve health in the UK and globally.

I will work to ensure that the UK remains one of the best places to do medical research during and post the COVID-19 pandemic and post Brexit, and strive to hold the Government to their commitment to double public investment in R&D by 2025.

I look forward to working on these priorities with our Fellows, grant awardees and the many individuals and organisations who share our goals during my time as Academy President. Please do get in touch to share your views and thoughts on these priorities.

 

Career at a glance

1974 – Graduated, BA in Medical Sciences and Social and Political Science from Newnham College, Cambridge University

1978 – Graduated, MBBS in Medicine at Newcastle University

1983 – Completed General Practice training                                                                               

1984 – Gained Masters in Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

1985 – Appointed lecturer in genitourinary medicine (GUM) and public health at Middlesex Hospital, later part of UCL, where she has worked for over 35 years on infectious disease epidemiology

1989 – Appointed Director, MRC UK Centre for Co-ordinating Epidemiological Studies of HIV and AIDS

1989 – Led the first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) funded by Wellcome, since repeated every 10 years, after being initially banned from public funding by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

1996 – Appointed Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at UCL          

2001 – Elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences, later chairing ‘Improving the health of the public by 2040 report and becoming Vice-President International in 2018

2002-10 – Appointed Head of Department, and later of the Division of Population Health, at UCL. Co-founded UCL’s Institute for Global Health

2009-18 – Appointed member of UK Adaptation Sub-Committee on Climate Change

2011-18 – Served as a Wellcome Trust Governor

2013 – Received Damehood (DBE)

2020 – Elected President of the Academy of Medical Sciences

Anne is married and has two children.

 

On mentors and mentoring: I really believe in the process of mentorship, and it is something the Academy has always been a real advocate for. It is often difficult to navigate the world through an academic career, so it’s extraordinarily important to have people looking out for your career, independent of their own ego. I received one of the best bits of advice late in life from one of my mentors – ‘Do what you want’, to which I would add, ‘But use your head to follow your heart.’

On scientific careers: It’s a tough road but incredibly exciting. At the heart of it, you really do have to have your own ideas to successfully pursue an academic career. But there are many paths to success, and people shouldn’t feel disappointed if it turns out that research-based science for the rest of their lives isn’t for them.

On leadership: I always encourage people to be imaginative and develop their own ideas. I’m very keen that they have their own independence I try to look after people’s careers but I also encourage them to be ambitious. If you don’t challenge people to try and go outside their comfort zones, they often don’t realise what they can achieve.

On her Presidential legacy: In brief this would have to be: greater diversity, greater well-earned public recognition and greater financial security. Underpinning this, we must be at the core of research excellence, remain a trusted voice for independent evidence and secure the careers of the future generations.

Key contacts


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