The world’s citizens face extraordinary health challenges. Air pollution and climate change, increases in noncommunicable diseases, and the potential for an influenza pandemic top the World Health Organization’s 2019 list of global threats to health. Many countries are also facing the challenge of aging populations and more people living with multiple chronic conditions.
Scientific discoveries have given us tools that can help tackle these challenges, including a greater understanding of human biology in health and disease, the ability to manipulate the genome, supercomputing, and artificial intelligence. Applying these advances to tackle complex health problems, however, requires much-needed but often rare skills and agility from those leading research efforts.
In coming decades, the greatest scientific discoveries will be facilitated by leaders who can break through traditional silos and feel at home in multidisciplinary teams. They will also need to understand and navigate the languages and cultures of multiple sectors, from health care systems and academia to industry, finance, and government.
As president of the United Kingdom’s Academy of Medical Sciences and executive director of King’s Health Partners, I have had a bird’s-eye view of the challenges we face in ensuring that the “fourth industrial revolution” improves health. All too often, health care professionals and academics work in silos, and many don’t have the experience with regulatory frameworks or working with industry that would help them convert research discoveries into tangible benefits for patients, health care systems, or society at large.
I regularly hear from current leaders in the health and life sciences sector that we need to better equip future leaders with the skills to work collaboratively and across sectors. These skills can take time to develop and mature, which means we must start working with mid-career professionals now.
That is why the Academy of Medical Sciences developed Future Leaders in Innovation, Enterprise and Research (FLIER). This two-year program aims to equip emerging leaders with skills they can use to seize opportunities afforded by new discoveries in science, technology, and medicine and help solve the biggest health challenges we face. During participants’ first year in the program, they meet established leaders in the life sciences sector, discuss leadership challenges they are currently facing, undergo one-to-one coaching, and attend workshops and webinars, even as they continue their day jobs. In the second year, they will undertake cross-sector, collaborative projects to embed the connected leadership skills they have developed.
The first cohort, announced earlier this year, includes 17 professionals from backgrounds as varied as law, policy, biotech, the pharmaceutical industry, academia, and health care. It has been a joy to see how much they learn from and support each other.
Here’s how one FLIER participant, Dr. Marc Vendrell, a biomedical imaging specialist at the University of Edinburgh, describes the program: “It’s very easy to get caught in the track of publishing papers and getting grants without thinking much about what real-life impact technologies can have in clinical practice. Now I understand better what clinicians, the industry, and policy makers think, and this is essential for developing any new technology. For example, we could make the coolest imaging technique ever, but if that means adding many extra resources in the surgery room, it may never fly.”
Taking emerging leaders from different sectors and helping them develop together has challenges. They each bring different work “languages” to the program, along with cultural differences such as pace of work, responses to failure and risk, and drivers and barriers, such as money. FLIER gives participants the time, space, and direct experience to unpack and understand the differences between sectors to help them become truly connected leaders.
They can also apply what they learn from other sectors to their own work and reap potentially unanticipated benefits. Chelsea Roche, an intellectual property lawyer, described how she is learning skills through FLIER that don’t come naturally in her area of expertise: “I’m looking at ways that I can encourage innovation, which is challenging because I’m on the legal team and we are traditionally quite risk-averse. But taking risks is a core part of being innovative, so it’s a challenge I’m working on.”
Despite their different backgrounds, these future leaders share common themes that make them stand out from the crowd. Each has a desire to solve a big and complicated problem, and can see that it will take collaboration and support from outside of their sectors to make a difference. They all have an ability to see the bigger picture and a desire to understand worlds beyond their own, something the FLIER program aims to help them accomplish.
When developing a forward-looking leadership program, one of the most important things to consider is that we simply don’t know what the future holds, particularly in politically unstable times like these. The challenges and opportunities these leaders will encounter in 10 to 20 years are impossible to anticipate. Looking back a few decades, we could not have predicted the discoveries that are revolutionizing science now, such as CRISPR and large-scale genetic sequencing, nor could we have understood how supercomputing and artificial intelligence would affect health care. We couldn’t have predicted political events such as Brexit, the extent of the obesity epidemic, or that people in many developed countries would spend an increasing number of years living with poor health.
We need a pipeline of talented leaders who will disrupt the status quo, seize opportunities, and galvanize multisector teams to find innovative solutions to our most pressing health challenges. I urge research funders, national academies, academia, industry, and governments to begin developing future leaders now — there is no time to lose.
Robert Lechler, M.D., is president of the Academy of Medical Sciences in the United Kingdom, vice principal (health) at King’s College London, and executive director of King’s Health Partners.