Strategy thinkpiece: a connected world of research

The Academy is developing a new ten year strategy for 2022–2032. To start the conversation, in the next few weeks we are publishing a series of thinkpieces on what needs to change in the next decade for better research and better health.

Here, we talk to four UK-based researchers previously supported through the Academy’s portfolio of grants and programmes.

“We are from four very different health research disciplines, and have each previously worked across multiple countries. But we are all part of one system, working towards a broad goal of improving health and wellbeing: our research areas are not separate streams.

“Despite changes being forced upon us through a deeply challenging year with COVID, some areas have capitalised on the opportunity. We’ve seen in sharper focus the benefits: better knowledge ecosystems, faster two-way knowledge exchange, more efficient regulatory bodies. And we’ve also seen more clearly the weak points.

“It shouldn’t take a pandemic to make this possible. We need to realise what we already have. We need to use what we have more effectively. Organisations like this Academy need to use this momentum to build back better.”

“After discussing together, here we share our priorities as individuals for what needs to change in the next decade.”

“Impactful global health research needs joined-up thinking.”

Dr Eva Gluenz, Royal Society University Research Fellow in Parasitology at the University of Glasgow and Academy SUSTAIN programme member

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have been in the spotlight. But as the world looks to science for solutions, we should ask how to help the people behind it.

“How do we attract the brightest minds to choose science as a career? What can we do to retain researchers and develop our skills so we can step up when called upon? Researchers need stability and freedom to discover and develop truly novel things: it is independence within strong networks that allows us to make an impact in the world through research.”

“As scientific progress relies on teamwork, we should ask which roles we need to develop for the teams of the future – which in turn may create a greater choice of attractive career paths. Within the UK specifically, we need to develop and reward technical skills more, including for handling big data. Training and promoting scientists from a wider range of backgrounds is key. Learned societies have been leading this discussion: tailored programmes, such as the Academy’s SUSTAIN programme that I was part of, can help prevent leaks from the pipeline.

“When I look at COVID, I wonder about the future of careers in my own research field. I work on parasites that harm the poorest communities around the world but make few headlines. Impactful global health research needs joined-up thinking and long-term commitment: researchers from the Global South must be able to participate on an equal footing with their colleagues in the North, and data needs to be open and accessible. Scientific collaboration that will benefit everyone should face no borders.”

“We need to maintain momentum in open and trusted data sharing.”

Dr Mehrdad Alizadeh Mizani, Research Fellow in Health Data Science at the UCL Institute of Health Informatics and Academy Newton International Fellow

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government made national health data accessible for research in Trusted Research Environments provisioned by NHS Digital. This provided researchers like me with a collaborative platform to analyse up-to-date patient data linked with test results, vaccinations, and deaths – as well as a secure environment to share codes, models, phenotyping algorithms, processed data, and discuss findings.

“This experience was very different to what I faced before the pandemic. In my first application to access longitudinal health data, I was faced with questions on hypothesis-driven clinical trials. Could I fill in some sections with “to potentially discover unforeseeable hidden factors and patterns through my clustering algorithm”? Evidently not...!

“This mismatch between hypothesis-driven research and data-driven AI-enabled research overshadows the evaluation of multi-disciplinary data access applications and research outputs. With such a long process to be allowed to use longitudinal person-specific datasets, and pressure to quickly publish the study results, researchers tend to limit their analysis to commonly used statistical analysis, rather than newly emerged AI algorithms, to make their results publishable in dominant medical journals.

“To make the most of data and create the open knowledge ecosystem of the future we need to:

  • Move from restricted data silos to trust-based analysis environments beyond COVID, and
  • Encourage interdisciplinary, innovative, and data-driven approaches in healthcare research.”

“We need to better understand everyday health and wellbeing.”

Dr Niina Kolehmainen, Reader in Allied Child Health at Newcastle University and Academy FLIER leadership programme member

“In the past few decades the nature of health and illness has changed. We have moved from ‘a single event driven by a specific disease’ to long-term conditions interwoven throughout our lives and societies.

“COVID-19 has brought this change into the spotlight across society. How does access to a healthy environment, education, family support, healthy food and physical activity affect us? I would very much like to see inclusive, societal conversations about what health and wellbeing really means. What does preventing disease and disability from the earliest stages of life actually look like?”

“Answering these questions also requires data. Currently there is little accessible data about everyday health and well-being. We need to have a broader think about what routine data should be collected and made available.

“And I would particularly like to see most attention paid to the groups that are often sidelined – young children and young adults with their whole lives ahead of them, people living with disabilities caused by multiple long-term conditions, and people with less-than-sufficient access to the resources and environment that define our health.

“This in turn requires cross-sector, interdisciplinary science with people with a range of experiences and expertise. The Academy’s initiatives, such as the #FLIER leadership programme that I was part of, have begun this work. The next decade must further grow this.” 

Read more about Niina’s research ambitions in this blog about her experiences on our FLIER leadership scheme.

“We are and should now be post-national.”

Dr Valerie Voon, MRC Senior Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge and Academy SUSTAIN programme member

“In the midst of the pandemic, we witnessed social step-change in the #BLM movement. Academia has a social responsibility to reflect back the diversity of society. The process is active. I was ecstatic at the election of Kamala Harris as Vice-President. But this takes the effort of a community. It involves mentorship, modelling and exposure at an early stage in schools, allowing kids and teens to imagine the possible and make the path desirable. Then, universities and programs like the Academy’s SUSTAIN programme to identify potential and provide opportunity and support at key stages.

“Like the others, I also want to emphasise the importance to research of open big data, accessibility, longitudinal follow-up and then critically, a feedback loop to implement real-world change. The pandemic has shown that we can move more efficiently and flexibly, with a streamlined regulatory system. 

“For my own research, COVID brought our experimental studies to a sudden and unending halt. But my students ran with online cognitive testing, digital therapeutics, open large datasets and collaborative research with my team in Shanghai China, who remained active for in-person studies. We became much more nimble moving from mechanisms to interventions to treatment and back across the two countries.

“Here I highlight too a focus on neurotechnology, from digital testing, therapies and machine learning to non-invasive neuromodulation and brain-computer interface techniques applied towards brain and mental health. We should not fear but embrace the possibilities of high risk-reward studies and their potential unique insights. High risk-reward studies – like those I oversee through my role on the Board of Directors of 1907 Research – are about feasible blue-sky investment, tolerating the risk of and learning from failure.

“Collaboration across disciplines, universities, countries in research exploded during the pandemic and should be more natural in academia. We are and should be now post-national. We must emphasize the UK’s strengths and build capacity. Then we can pick and emphasise strengths across individuals, and across countries, and capitalise on them together.”

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These four perspectives are from researchers who have benefitted from the Academy’s grants and careers support, bringing in viewpoints from their experiences living and working across the global science ecosystem.

This is only one piece of the puzzle. In future thinkpieces, we’ll be exploring further areas and opinions from our Fellowship and beyond. If you’d like to get involved in our ongoing strategy development, find out more here.

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