Life Sciences 2022: New Chief Scientist relishes golden opportunities

It’s happy 50th birthday to the role of Scotland’s Chief Scientist (Health) in 2023 – and the new holder of the post is determined to be at the very heart of the life sciences community during this golden anniversary.

Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak took on the role in July, and sees it as a crucial position to convene the members of that community to unleash the power of life sciences in Scotland.

“Scottish research, development and innovation [RDI] in health is renowned all over the world, and I want to make absolutely sure that we serve the community in this period of great need,” says Dominiczak, who is also Regius Chair of Medicine at the University of Glasgow.

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“After Covid, we have a lot of issues. So it’s really utilising that strength and talent – of our RDI, clinician scientists, public health researchers, and everybody involved – to take the best transformational innovations and to adopt them into our NHS.

Professor Anna Dominiczak. Picture: Martin Shields Newsquest Media Group
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“Rather than doing it in bits, we need to do it once for Scotland, do it collaboratively and bring talent from the NHS, academia and industry together in this ‘triple helix’.

“If we can embed RDI in every bit of our NHS, whether it’s hospitals, general practice or social care, it will make patients and communities better.

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“There is enormous evidence that patients in places involved in research have better outcomes – even those not part of any clinical trial. So in this post-Covid era, this is my big priority, to embed research, development and innovation in everything we do.”

So how will Dominiczak do this as the new Chief Scientist (Health)? “It’s quite an old role – 50 next year – and I see it as somebody who can convene all these parties to work together. My big emphasis, at least for the first year, will be on industry. I think sometimes we worry that we shouldn’t be too close to industry, but you can’t collaborate if you don’t talk.”

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After our conversation, Dominiczak is attending the life sciences industry leadership group and wants to help “reinvigorate” it. She says: “I want to bring industry closer to the NHS and academia to work together for the benefit of Scotland, to bring the best projects, new jobs and economic growth. When you do this, patients and communities benefit.

“Health consumes huge amounts of our national budget. We can give back by building inward investment, bringing industry to the country, building small Scottish companies to grow bigger in life sciences. All this is the convening ability of the Chief Scientist (Health).”

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Dominiczak says there is also a job to do in simplifying the life sciences community: “I think there are too many different organisations, so I am going to try to simplify. As the Chief Scientist’s office comes to its 50th, I think we need to see more of the CSO logo.”

The purpose of this, she says, is to provide leadership to create “a completely cohesive pathway” to deliver great life sciences ideas into the NHS and the Scottish population.

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But is the NHS ready for big new thinking? It is often criticised for being slow and cumbersome and unable to take on new and innovative ideas.

“This is what I’ve been working on since day-zero in this job,” says Dominiczak. “I was lucky because a fantastic group of people, led by one of the public health directors in government, is already trying to build a pipeline, to create a unified system across all the health boards – to prioritise transformative innovations very quickly in an accelerated way, to check safety, to ensure added value for patients and then adopt once for Scotland.”

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There are already two or three of these “transformative innovations” being worked on, she says, adding: “We believe there will be early wins and we will be able to make it bigger, better, faster. The way we do it is to collaborate and engage with chief executives and chairs of all the health boards very early. You can’t adopt something that colleagues on the ground don’t want. They know best, so we constantly talk with all of them.

“There is now an understanding that in these difficult post-Covid times, there is an opportunity to change, to do things better.”

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What does Dominiczak think we learned during the pandemic about working together more quickly and effectively that can inform how to deliver real transformation in healthcare?

“Covid was terrible, but there were a few good things to provide a positive legacy – the ability to reduce red tape, make faster decisions, and work collaboratively,” she says.

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“For me, testing diagnostics was the best example. I was involved with The Lighthouse laboratory in Glasgow that was built in a week and started producing thousands of tests within three weeks. This was completely unprecedented, but it only happened because all the barriers and blockers went down. There was a common purpose – industry came to help, NHS helped, academia helped, military colleagues transported equipment.

“We can’t always do things in a week, but can we do them in two weeks instead of three months? That is the Covid legacy. All those who were delivering in the emergency need to try to maintain implementing things at the speed of light.”

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And how can this pace and urgency help support the life sciences industry more broadly? With Scotland’s 2025 £8 billion turnover target set to be smashed, how do we ensure infrastructure is there to support the pace of growth?

“This is why we talk to industry, and listen to industry,” Dominiczak says. “I’ve already had complaints, and we must make sure there is a platform for businesses to grow, develop, deliver, and make Scotland a safe place to come for international industry. Inward investment is hugely important.

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“We need to develop our own life sciences industry, but also be known internationally as a place to come to do successful clinical trials and to test new medical devices better than elsewhere.

“This is difficult in a time of strained budgets, but I think we can do it because we have enormously talented clinician scientists all over Scotland who are willing to work together. We are the right size and have a great tradition of working together.

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“Money is important, but sometimes it’s more about the ability to collaborate. It’s the three Cs – collaboration, cohesion and co-ordination. I think we do it well in Scotland and we need to shout really loud how great Scotland is.

“We get our adoption pipeline, we get our life sciences industry closer to the NHS and academia, and we bring more and more activity to Scotland. That itself will support further research, development and innovation.”

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Dominiczak believes there are big lessons for life sciences and the wider health sector to learn from Scotland’s tech industry, working with Mark Logan, the Scottish Government’s chief entrepreneur.

“We are talking very actively with Mark Logan to use the same ideas he brought to tech into health, to put entrepreneurship in the centre of test beds across Scotland,” she says.

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“I think health could benefit by working together in parallel, almost twinning with tech, and getting the ideas and learning of entrepreneurship for our clinician scientists, for our 12 innovation fellows. We will engage them in these entrepreneurial ideas and training.

“I think it will bring that readiness that industry is looking for, that understanding of how industry works, how entrepreneurship works. I’d like to see this succeed in the next few months.”

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If this works, Dominiczak believes it can deliver the early wins and get transformative treatments into the NHS, which can truly improve patients’ lives.

“If we can adopt this attitude, have these early wins, we can make Scotland an even better place for the life sciences industry to grow, create new jobs and economic growth. I think we can do it. I am a great optimist.”