Why the future needs a new kind of leader

Our President, Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, looks at leadership in the life sciences.

There is no doubt that to continue to improve health and wealth in the UK and globally we will need exceptional leaders in biomedical and health research.

We will need leaders that, with the right skills, can see the opportunities and are motivated to move mountains to make their vision happen.  This will enable them to enact the vision laid out in the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy to ‘build our life science industry into a global hub that makes the UK the home of clinical research and medical innovation’.

I am convinced that the greatest scientific discoveries in coming decades will be facilitated by those who can work across traditional academic disciplines, and feel at home in multidisciplinary teams. To make a difference to patients, future leaders will also need to understand and navigate the languages and cultures of multiple sectors including the NHS, academia, industry, government and regulators.

Addressing challenges by navigating across sectors

Our society faces unprecedented health challenges, attributable largely to trends including our ageing population and more people living with multiple diseases. We also face health and social care systems in financial difficulty struggling to deal with increased demand. Yet, we also live at a time of great opportunity – scientific discovery has given us tools such as supercomputing, artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation, and a greater understanding of human biology and disease.

In these challenging times we desperately need great leaders to drive scientific discovery; leaders savvy enough to create the right conditions to convert the latest technology, scientific understanding or research finding into benefits for patients.

I regularly hear from the current leaders in the health and life sciences sector that we need to better equip our future leaders with the skills to work collaboratively and across sectors. These skills take time to develop and mature – so if we want the most dynamic leaders in ten to twenty years, we must start working with mid-career researchers now.

Developing agile, creative and radical thinking leaders

For these reasons, the Academy of Medical Sciences is developing a new pilot leadership programme. The programme will be quite unlike any leadership programme that exists at the moment. Participants will immerse themselves in a two-year learning experience, and the look and feel of the programme will be guided by their needs and strengths. The programme will span sectors and be dynamic.

The Academy is uniquely placed to develop these leaders of tomorrow. We have an excellent track record of nurturing the brightest and best biomedical and health researchers. We understand the cultures and constraints of different sectors in the research ecosystem - our FORUM brings together academia, industry, healthcare providers, policy makers, research charities and patients to break down barriers. Our policy work, such as our Team Science report and our seminal report on UK research regulation, helps anticipate trends and shape the environment to support research.

In our pilot leadership programme we want to attract participants with vision, learning agility and creative, innovative and radical thinking. We want people who have the potential to rise up and see opportunities on the horizon that may not be visible to others and forge teams across traditional boundaries that can enact the vision.

Leaders who can disrupt the status quo

We do not know exactly what the programme will look like yet, not least because are using the views of the innovative disruptors that we envisage taking part to further develop the programme. The feedback from the pilot cohort will allow us to refine the programme for future participants.

We are mindful that in ten to twenty years we will face challenges we cannot anticipate now. If we look back a few decades we could not have predicted the discoveries that are revolutionising science – CRISPR, large scale genetic sequencing, supercomputing and artificial intelligence – buzzwords now that were unheard of then. We could not have predicted we would leave the European Union, that the obesity epidemic would be gathering pace and that the years our population spend living with ill health would be increasing.

We can’t fully know what the future holds, but we do know we will need a pipeline of talented leaders that will disrupt the status quo to seize opportunities and galvanise multi-sectoral teams to overcome barriers. We hope our pilot programme will fuel this new breed of leader to continue to improve health in the UK and internationally.

To find out more about our new programme for Future Leaders in Innovation, Enterprise and Research, visit our FLIER Programme page.

To support the work of the Academy, visit our dedicated Supporters page.

Key contacts

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