Conditions for good research

Just about every country has identified life sciences in some form or other as a priority for academic and commercial development. But what will characterise the countries that may in the end prevail?

  1. The research community needs a high degree of autonomy. The European University Association released an interesting study, University Autonomy in Europe II: the Scorecard, in 2011, assessing the degree of institutional autonomy universities in the various EU member states enjoyed. The countries with the greatest university autonomy were from northern Europe: Denmark, Ireland, UK, Finland, Sweden Latvia, Lithuania. Those with highly regulated and state controlled systems were from southern Europe, or had systems where the state just likes to intrude: France, Luxembourg, Greece, Italy and others. To be fair, some countries were more or less autnomous on different indicators, but the rough distinction can be drawn. Surprisingly, at least to me, was the middling performance of countries like the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. No doubt various higher control states will endeavour to justify why the state needs to be so intrusive, but as evidence that this is perhaps an unhealthy state of affairs, we see the highly instrusive French state over the past year moving to create greater diversity and differentiation in funding for its universities with greater autonomy (see this news item for instance). Clearly, greater autonomy necessitates greater diversity and differentiation and in the end some will need to become better than others. While we would like to think that all universities are essentially the same, reality suggests that the only real equality lies in the extent to which they all meet minimum standards, rather than all trying to meet some arbitrary ‘gold standard’.
  2. The second point is that the bulk of significant research results in life sciences arise from centres known as academic health science centres (AHSC). This is a theme I warm too, as it provides an organisational model that drives innovation from the clinical user end, rather than from the research end. Yes, more research funds are always needed, but we also need solutions. Efforts to operationalise translational medicine are doomed to fail if the driving forces are not coupled to the clinical user and innovation policies in general need to start with problems needing solutions, and hence a factor more likely to be evidenced. Only a few countries have AHSCs — such as US (over 50), Canada (about 14), Sweden (1), Belgium (1), Netherlands (8) and the UK (5). Germany arguably has at least one as does Italy. France has none, and one will need to see whether changes in their higher education system are likely to lead to formal establishment of this approach. The challenge (and this was the subject of a paper I presented, see the previous entry below), is that while universities are more likely to enjoy degrees of autonomy, hospitals are less likely to. The UK was only able to move toward establishment of AHSCs when the state control of the hospitals was relaxed through successive periods of NHS reform. The Netherlands model built on existing relationships. Countries without AHSCs, though, will confront the twin challenge of institutional autonomy of both universities and hospitals.
  3. The third point is that not all countries will be able to do everything in life sciences and therefore will need to set some priorities. National priorities are hard to conceive, because countries usually think of themselves as being able to do everything and so efforts for instance, get diluted and underperform. Cash is tight these days (think debt) and governments just cannot afford everything, so the most difficult challenge is establishing priorities.