The issue of Nature last week contained a special supplement on Innovations in the Microbiome. The microbiome is something I have become increasingly fascinated with, starting from early realisations of its importance whilst at GlaxoSmithKline, through to the work BBSRC sponsors at the Institute of Food Research and in universities. It was interesting to read the article by Nestlé, who sponsored the supplement, charting their interest in probiotic bacteria and the microbiome. Much of this work is done in conjunction with academia and indeed much of it could not have been done by Nestlé alone. But similarly, the academic researchers have needed Nestlé to translate their work into applications with industry and consumer benefit.
Companies in many industries are adopting an open innovation agenda (about which I have written before) and this of necessity involves working more closely with partners outside a company, including academics. Such collaborative efforts build on and extend past collaborative models and the use of academics as experts for advice. As someone who used to work in the pharmaceutical industry, I have always been acutely aware of potential conflicts of interest on both sides and the best way to deal with them is to be as transparent as possible.
Some argue that any interactions between industry and academia are a bad thing and that any academic who has a relationship with a company is somehow ‘tainted’. I genuinely do not believe that this is the case. Such interactions bring benefits to both industry and academia – and ultimately to society. For example, people working in the field (literally in the case of farmers) or with patients might have a much greater understanding of what might need to be developed than someone who is located within a company or the practicalities of implementing any solution or intervention; in designing clinical trials it is really important to involve clinicians who understand the disease and current treatment paradigms; the selection of diagnostic tests or establishment of field hospitals requires expert opinions; the experience of drug design and development that resides in industry can be invaluable to academics working to develop new therapies etc.
From the other side – in many areas the best, or only, or fastest way to accelerate a beneficial impact from the lab is through industry. While there are different models it is still most often the most effective way to get a new variety of crop into the field or a new therapy or treatment into the clinic using the networks, development, marketing and distribution capabilities of industry – and thereby bringing benefits for all in society.
In addition the intellectual challenge on both sides provided by academic-industry interactions is stimulating and can bring new approaches to some of the challenges we face. So I strongly support these interactions but it is clear that complete transparency is needed when doing so and I am proud that the BBSRC community is one of the most open and collaborative when it comes to working with industry and other end-users.
Last week I had a fascinating visit to Wakehurst Place and the Millennium Seed Bank. The building in which the bank is housed is beautifully constructed and members of the public can look in and see the scientists at work. Of course the gardens are also wonderful although the dreadful weather meant my view of them was somewhat limited – even in the rain the cyclamens by the entrance looked beautiful against the snowdrops.
I have already read most of the papers I was given which gave further insights into the work done there by Kew scientists. I would certainly urge anyone who is in the vicinity of Haywards Heath to take time out and visit.
Myself, Paul Burrows and Laura Notton from BBSRC visited Imperial College London at the beginning of the week. I really enjoyed the talks and posters and meeting the students and staff involved in BBSRC-funded work as well as hearing about broader topics such as their work on antimicrobial resistance. These trips allow us to talk about BBSRC’s plans for the future and also to get feedback on what is working well or where there may be areas for improvement. For example, it was pointed out that it is hard to get recognition for contributions to grant proposals if you are not eligible to be a PI. Going back to the office it turns out that there is a way of recognising such contributions through being a researcher co-investigator (see paragraph 3.8 of our Grants Guide) – but perhaps this isn’t publicised enough.