No one loves a good graphic about research and innovation in medicine more than me. They help describe the complexity of investigating new treatments so that everyone can understand them. I also like them because they reveal how the designers think things work.
Yesterday in support of World Alzheimer's Month, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) launched a great graphic on dementia research, accompanied by a blog that sets out the great programme of work being undertaken in the UK to research the causes and potential treatments for dementia.
Dementia is one of the most daunting health spectres of our age, and it is vital that this research expands to deliver the scientific insights and breakthroughs for technologies we so desperately need. As the MRC blog rightfully argues, "[our] ambition to defeat dementias will only happen if researchers from different disciplines join forces and make a big push to carry out a diverse programme of research." I would add that this means not only different disciplines from academia, the charities and NHS, but also from the biopharmaceutical industry. I think that the MRC and NIHR would both support me on this.
So where is industry in all this? If we go by the graphic, industry stands at the back as one of the "main contributors", but what does that actually mean? Perhaps industry researchers are amongst those figures building the road to new science and treatments, but I must admit, it's not easy to detect.
Again, graphics paint a picture of how we see the world and understand how things work, and my concern is that this graphic seems to be a framing of medicines research in the UK that discounts industry research. Of course, this stands at odds to everything we know about the history of medicine and science more generally.
Industrial research is an important (often leading) share of the national effort. I think this is understood in terms of expenditure; in the UK, the pharmaceutical industry is by far the greatest investor in business R&D but also the greatest investor in health-related research. This investment reflects not only what we contribute to partnerships (very significant for dementia) and outsourced work, but primarily to investment in our own activities. In 2016, there were 77 medicines for Alzheimer's Disease alone under development. We have thousands of researchers working in our member companies working today in the UK, addressing dementia, amongst a wide range of diseases and new technologies.
This is not a question of seeking credit or acknowledgement for the work that we do. Our member companies are going to carry on their valuable research whether or not they are in a graphic or invited to present in an academic symposium. As someone who has researched collaboration and open innovation practices, my concern is that when you have a false map of 'who does what', the potential success for collaboration and distributed innovation are sharply decreased. It's quite simple – you can't work with someone you don't even know is there.
The problem may be that we haven't shared industry's work – or the people who deliver that here in the UK – clearly and effectively. We are planning to tackle that issue head on at the ABPI, starting with this year's R&D Sourcebook, which will be available by the end of the year. We hope to bring a better explanation of the way we work and how our researchers here in the UK and around the world have a critical role to play in building the road to better scientific understanding and treatments for global challenges, like dementia.