Lab challenges thwarting breakthrough stories

Scientific endeavours on campus drive new drug development, a greater understanding of the body and the robust data needed to support interventions.

They can also be a goldmine for PR professionals looking for their next big healthcare story with global appeal.

Typically, those studies focused on the most common diseases and conditions gain the most media attention.

While often fascinating, research into more obscure elements of health can be a tougher sell to the mainstream press.

A recent US report points to a shift towards the former, potentially making life easier for PR personnel at big universities but not helping those campaigning around less prevalent conditions.

According to a UCLA study, there is a perceived shift in university research towards so called “Grand Challenges” or “moonshots”.

It says higher education institutions are increasingly pooling their research resources into: “These ambitious goals that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination, increase support for policies and investments that foster innovation; and serve as compelling ‘North Stars’ for cross-sector and multi-disciplinary collaboration.”

Grand Challenges often bring together funding from charities, industry and government and, according to the report, are a growing worldwide trend at universities.

They can involve vast sums of funding. UCLA, for example, has a vision to enable Los Angeles County to enjoy 100 per cent renewable energy, 100 per cent locally sourced water and enhanced human health by 2050. The estimated cost of this effort is US$150m.

Such goals provide stability to researchers, could potentially change the world – and generate international PR for the universities involved. They may marginalise less high-profile research areas, however.

As the Times Higher Education (THE) reports, some academics are “uncomfortable with the amount of activity being centred on fashionable, big banner goals such as curing cancer”.

James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, told the publication that the move towards challenge-directed research was “broadly positive” but also needs “close monitoring”.

He said: “Clearly there is a need to monitor quite carefully the overall balance of funding within the system and the underlying health of disciplinary fields or questions that are less ‘fashionable’ in policy terms – especially when, as now in the UK, you’ve got a significant shift towards new challenge-directed funding programmes across the system as a whole.”

Where would research into rarer diseases stand if every university joined the Grand Challenge movement?

Last year’s landmark Huntington’s Disease trial, for example, was described by UCL’s professor John Hardy as “potentially, the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative disease in the past 50 years”.

Yet, despite proving that the genetic defect that causes the disease can be reversed, it could hardly be described as “big banner” given the condition’s relatively low profile in the public eye.

Aside from cancer, dementia is perhaps the Grand Challenge topic that most concerns people generally – understandably since there are now around a million dementia patients in the UK alone.

The Euro Brain Prize, a new grant for researchers, recently awarded its US$1.2m pot to an Alzheimer’s study. The British government has also added £40m to the UK Dementia Research Institute’s resources, taking its budget to £290m.

Hopefully research into lesser known diseases – and big banner ones – can co-exist and the perceived Grand Challenge trend does not hit every university.

A more pressing challenge facing university research labs is a skills shortage in various disciplines.

It threatens to hinder the emergence of healthcare breakthroughs that save lives and are shared globally via PR professionals.

The UK reportedly needs 700,000 more lab technicians by 2020, according to the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. A national training centre has been set up as a result, based at the University of Sheffield and backed by £1.1m in funding and investment.

There is also a lack of healthcare scientists, National Audit Office stats show. At the last count in 2017, the NHS needed 2,530 more scientists. Many of these roles are filled by university researchers and involve collaboration with higher education institutions.

Rapid progress in data acquisition technology has also created a dearth in data analysts and scientists globally.

The European Commission believes Europe needs around 350,000 more by 2020.

Funding and staffing university research labs in the UK has become a divisive sub-topic of Brexit as it approaches.

On one side are concerned university operators like Russell Group, which recently lamented a nine per cent fall in non-British EU PhD students. Most prominently on the other side of the Brexit / research debate is the great British innovator James Dyson, who is unshakable in his optimism.

For PR professionals, researchers should continue to be valuable story contacts for the foreseeable future. It is important to appreciate, however, the many pressures they are under.

We may even have a role to play in helping to solve some of their challenges. Campaigning to attract more people to the field certainly seems to be needed.

Finding smarter ways to raise the profile of lesser known conditions might also help. Otherwise we may have a situation where the prospect of publicity has a disproportionate influence on researchers as they plan new trials and studies.

By Andrew Mernin, an Admiral Associate and editor of the Neuro Rehab Times.