Paul Hagan, Director of Research and Innovation at the Scottish Funding Council, tells Amy Caddick how Scottish life science research can continue its upward momentum…
Covering a range of fields, such as plant science and biology, life sciences is an area with a vital role to play in advancing health and improving quality of life.
Scotland already has a substantial life science research base, which has been bolstered over the last few years through support from both the government and funding bodies, as well as private investment from a significant number of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
The Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the national strategic body that oversees funding for research and education in Scotland, supports development in a number of areas, one of which is life sciences.
Paul Hagan, Director of Research and Innovation at the SFC, believes that the global challenges facing society in terms of healthcare and a rising ageing population mean life science research is more important than ever.
"Investing in life science research enables us to contribute to improvements in the mental and physical wellbeing of society," he says. "It enables us to find new ways of preventing diseases through early detection and intervention. Research in these areas not only has major health benefits for Scotland, but has the potential to contribute to our economic development.
"With approximately 32,000 people employed in Scotland in life sciences, there is a tremendous opportunity to make significant health contributions if we harness the strength of our research and industry base. It is a sector that has been showing significant growth in the last few years despite the difficult financial times.
"Life sciences are recognised as an area in which Scotland has a considerable company base and a high growth potential. It has the ability to contribute to the nation’s productivity, and given our strengths here it is an area we will continue to develop."
The Scottish Government is similarly anxious to ensure that Scotland’s research institutions work with industry to contribute to long-term sustainable development. This commitment is outlined in the refreshed Scottish Life Sciences Strategy 2011.
Collaboration is the cornerstone of research, and bringing together researchers and industry is certainly something that has been a major focus for the SFC. This has led to the rise of a number of collaborative bodies and research pools, such as the Scottish Universities Life Science Alliance (SULSA) and the Academic Health Sciences Collaboration, which links medical schools in Scotland with health boards.
"We’re keen to maintain and build on strategic alliances within the life sciences community across Scotland, and we’re doing this in a very joined-up way," Hagan reveals. "By coming together to work on problems, share resources, share facilities and share studentships, we are able to further increase our capabilities in this discipline.
This collaborative approach to addressing major challenges is one of the key reasons Scotland has excelled in health research, and this is developing apace, with the innovation centres project reaching an exciting stage.
"Innovation Centres will link academia and industry, providing an environment where they can work together in developing new products," says Hagan. "In the life sciences sector, this could be new drugs, new medicines and new vaccines. Our plans for the Innovation Centres have been developed in close collaboration with Scotland’s enterprise agencies, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which provide crucial support to industry in Scotland. This is another example where there are added benefits from having a joined-up approach, with the SFC supporting the academic research base and enterprise agencies backing businesses.
"The SFC acts as a facilitator, meaning we provide the underpinning support for the research base in Scotland. We provide strategic funding to bring together collaborative activities through the SULSA, and we work together with enterprise agencies to ensure that our research base is as joined-up with industry as it possibly can be to provide opportunities for the exploitation and translation of that research.
"Our function as a funding council is to support research in our institutions and to ensure coherent provision in teaching," continues Hagan. "We have to ensure we are providing cohorts of graduates who are appropriately skilled to contribute to industry and to sustain world-class research in our universities. As a funding body, our role is to support fundamental research, not interfere. At the same time, however, institutions have a responsibility to demonstrate the impact of their research and how that funding is being utilised in support of the Scottish Government’s priorities."
Giving research institutions the freedom to decide where to spend funding means that the best quality research can be supported within universities, and this is usually the research that has the greatest impact on the challenges facing society.
"There are areas that the Scottish Government has identified as important, and we support those areas," Hagan states. "But the Haldane Principle, which is the idea that scientists should decide what they should work on, is certainly something we follow. We have no desire to micro-manage research. Scottish institutions have demonstrated that they are well placed to undertake world-class and internationally excellent basic research, and translate that research into benefits for the Scottish population and contribute to global challenges."
Maintaining momentum is vital if Scotland is to become an even more significant competitor in the life science field. Collaboration and a joined-up approach to research could see Scotland’s life science network expand even more extensively, but support from government and funding bodies must continue.
"It is an exciting time in Scotland for life sciences," concludes Hagan. "There are economic challenges, undoubtedly, but there are also major challenges facing the health of the nation – both Scotland and the UK. However, because of the strength of our research base, and the capacity of SMEs in Scotland, I believe we are in a position to make significant contributions and find solutions to some of the major global health problems facing society."
This article originally appeared on Publicservice.co.uk
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