‘Universities need to be a vanguard of innovation’ said the Director of Wellcome Trust

‘Universities need to be a vanguard of innovation’ said the Director of Wellcome Trust

Published on 15 May 2015

The SARIMA ACU conference was officially opened this week by Professor Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust. His keynote address was titled ‘Science, technology and innovation for a healthy, sustainable and prosperous globe’. Professor Farrar’s speech set the tone for the rest of the conference as he touched on the new challenges that face health systems around the world.

The massive scale of global migration, which is the direct result of conflict, natural disasters and economic inequality, means that health crises of the future won’t be confined to just one region of the world.

With faster means of travel, the escalation of communicable diseases to pandemic levels is a constant threat. ‘Health systems are not set up to handle this,’ said Professor Farrar. He used the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as an example: ‘The virus hasn’t changed. The ability of healthcare systems was not sufficient to handle the scale.’ The reason for the rampant spread of the virus was that the infection originated in a border region, and the environmental changes in West Africa brought the virus to the urban population where people are in much closer contact with each other.

Wealthier countries with more established healthcare systems than those in West Africa are also not equipped to handle epidemic surges in diseases. According to Professor Farrar, the 2010 flu epidemic in the United Kingdom showed that hospitals across the nation were under-resourced: bed occupancy was at 120%.

Organisations like the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) and the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA), he explained, are vital in the management and support of research and innovation across Africa and the Commonwealth. In terms of research focussed on the innovation of health systems, ‘we all have to take a broader perspective. We can no longer exist as singular entities,’ said the professor. The ACU and SARIMA also have the critical role of reminding governments of this new approach to research and innovation. Professor Farrar also emphasised that universities in the 21st century must play the role of educating researchers and encouraging them to seek collaborative opportunities. ‘Universities need to be a vanguard of innovation.’

Research funding agencies must remember that they too are making innovation possible. ‘Because we aren’t a government funder,’ said Professor Farrar of the Wellcome Trust, ‘we can ask the big questions. If we can’t take risks in what we find, I don’t know who can.’