31 Mar 2020
Appliance of Science
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Chief Scientific Officers play a crucial role in the development of some of the most significant medical and pharmaceutical breakthroughs, sometimes in response to real-time emerging problems. What does it take to do the job well?
In a world faced with increasingly complex environmental, health, societal and economic challenges, the need to fully exploit scientific breakthroughs for the benefit of all is crucial.
The Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) plays a large part in harnessing and developing that potential within a range of organisations, from life sciences and pharmaceutical firms to research groups and, importantly in times of crises, governments too.
Dr Marie Dziadek, CSO at the Sydney-based Garvan Institute of Medical Research, which undertakes breakthrough medical research, says her role is multi-faceted.
“It includes operationalising our executive director’s vision for the Institute. I work loosely with him to develop strategies and policies to ensure that we meet and maintain excellence in our research performance. I support scientists to perform at their absolute best, including skills and leadership training programmes for our younger researchers.
“We want our scientists maintaining a high level of integrity to produce research outcomes to the highest possible standard. An important part of that is adhering to a strict code of conduct and ethics in all areas of research activity.”
Another focus is on facilitating and managing the Institute’s strategic initiatives and collaborations with various community, academic and CSO/CSA industry organisations and groups.
“I’m charged with ensuring that all parties are benefiting from these partnerships. We need to effectively translate our research findings into clinical practice.”
Dr Derek Craston, CSO at UK-based life sciences research and analysis firm LGC Science & Technology, recognises the diversity of Dziadek’s role.
“Like other CSOs, I wear a number of hats. First, I have functional responsibility for a business unit that undertakes contract research services such as product authenticity in the food sector.
"Second, I have cross-organisational responsibility for reporting scientific outputs to our board and for connecting our scientific community across our multiple functional units and global sites.
“By doing so I aim to ensure we share collective knowledge for the benefit of all of our operations and that we are drawing in scientific information from the external world that will help inform our future plans. My aim is to assist the company in remaining nimble and responsive to scientific developments that might impact us and our customers.”
Derek sees his role evolving as LGC grows. “As we acquire more operations and invest in further capability and infrastructure, the complexity of scientific diversity and internal communications increases.
"Also, like most organisations, we recognise the importance of effectively tapping into the global science base to look for our next generation of products.”
“This means building a mix of strategic relationships with universities with acknowledged strength in our scientific fields, as well as a wider process for trawling for innovations emanating from both small companies and from the university science base.”
This focus on strategy appears crucial in the 2017 appointment of Ronald Plasterk, molecular geneticist and former Dutch Minister of the Interior, at Dutch healthcare technology group, myTomorrows.
His main focus is on creating academic partnerships to support the group’s aim to facilitate early access to pre-approval medicines for patients with unmet medical needs.
“I work closely with academic medical centres to discuss our strategies and what we can offer patients. I also ensure that, because we are dealing with non-registered drugs, everything we do – from how we treat our data to the financial and marketing decisions we make – are all scientifically sound. The numbers and results must be correct; if they are not, we will lose trust with our partners,” Plasterk states.
“As such, your science credentials are going to be crucial in this role. You will not know everything. There will be areas of medicine and language that you are not familiar with, so you need to keep asking questions to ensure that you completely understand what your team of scientists are telling you.”
Michael Roberts, founder and CSO of Synpromics, a developer of synthetic gene promoters, also believes a strategic mind is vital. “I define which direction our research and development should be taking. I guide our scientists and, as such, looking outwards to see what the medical industry is focusing on or developing is vital. I network and keep up with the latest literature, and ask if there are any shortfalls our technology or internal research can address.”
Ronald Plasterk says soft skills are important when dealing with partners. “We are an innovative company and as such, there is some scepticism around what we offer. It is therefore vital that as CSO, I listen to our partners and their concerns, and help overcome them.”
Dr Marie Dziadek identifies very similar skill sets that every CSO needs. The Garvan Institute has six different research divisions, so knowledge across all research areas is crucial. “You need to have awareness of technology developments, applications of technology, understanding of intellectual property, and commercialisation. You also need good communication skills.”
LGC’s Dr Derek Cranston agrees.
“You need to know enough about all of the many areas you operate in to understand the issues and the significance of specific developments that might impact the business.
“You also need to be able to communicate across a diversity of scientific understanding, from those with rich knowledge in their areas of expertise through to those with little or no technical background. Being able to describe difficult concepts in simple, easily understood terms is a really important part of the role.”
For Michael Roberts, a strong business sense is essential too. “You need to ensure that you deliver to your customers’ or clients’ timelines and deadlines. You must, like any business, meet their expectations.”
When it comes to Government Chief Scientific Advisers (CSAs), they use their own and the wider science community’s knowledge to help in a variety of policy areas.
These include trade deals for emerging technologies, how to prevent and tackle animal diseases, environmental pollution, and future energy capacity. They need to reach out to other scientists to keep abreast of the latest research, thinking and discoveries.
In global pandemics, for example, the CSA's role becomes even more vital to ensure that good science remains at the heart of the best possible response.
Outstanding CSAs are eminent scientists with the respect and recognition of the science community. They’re not just an expert in their own field but have sufficient all-round knowledge in all areas of science.
They also need to be able to communicate often-complex science topics in plain language to Government ministers, and the media. Also, CSAs need to be good at horizon scanning and to see what is coming next in the science field.
And when it comes to emerging questions that matter to the Government, such as the growth and spread of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, they have to have the answers. For this, you need to be able to talk to a broad range of experts, such as young coders and gamers, not just the usual medical professionals.
This article by David Craik is from the Odgers Berndtson magazine, OBSERVE, focusing on Science and Technology. Register to download your free copy here.