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by Professor Dame Anna Dominiczak
17 January 2024
Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office targeting an innovative, transformative future

Chief Scientist Anna Dominiczak photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office targeting an innovative, transformative future

The Chief Scientist Office (CSO) of Scottish Government proudly marked a historic half century last year, and its progressive vision of support and increasing the level of high-quality health research conducted across the country will remain just as relevant as it looks to the year ahead.

CSO began life as the Chief Scientist Organisation within the Scottish Home and Health Department under the direction of Professor Sir Andrew Watt Kay, with the prime objective of contributing towards the improvement of the NHS in Scotland.

While this aim has been a constant, much has of course changed since 1973 and CSO is now targeting an ambitious, transformative future after its 50th anniversary where accelerating innovation in healthcare with pioneering data can better inform research decision-making.

This means faster adoption of life-changing research-driven innovations for the health and financial benefits of the population so that Scotland is recognised globally as a destination of choice for health science, whilst simultaneously improving patient and clinician experiences and outcomes.

Just how much that has changed was exemplified by Scotland’s Health Research and Innovation Conference held recently at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital’s Teaching and Learning Centre in Glasgow, recordings of which can be viewed here

Across a varied programme, it covered everything that is foremost and topical right now in healthcare – international perspectives on the future of health and medicine; embedding Research, Development, and Innovation (RDI); lessons learnt from artificial intelligence (AI) research in digital diagnostics; Scotland’s triple helix approach to collaboration between the NHS, industry and academia; enabling participation in research; and much, much more.

Fundamentally, the conference looked to opportunities to unlock and accelerate Scotland’s full health research and innovation potential.

It also did not shy away from more challenging issues. During one panel discussion, the Scottish government's Chief Entrepreneur Mark Logan insisted that Scotland's health and care system needs to face the reality that it is failing to innovate.

Furthermore, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, Sir John Bell – considered one of Britain’s foremost physicians – said that the UK’s healthcare system is globally second only to the US in terms of cost but is failing to focus its innovation efforts where they are needed most.

These are the kinds of issues that must be spotlighted and addressed if we are to make genuine progress for the benefit of Scotland’s population.

Across the last 50 years, CSO has benefitted from the leadership of 10 Chief Scientists – two of which, Professors Andrew Morris and David Crossman were present for the conference – and I now have the honour of holding that prestigious role, working closely with the health research, development, and innovation community.

I intend for my tenure to continue to mark a step change in RDI being clearly viewed as an enabler of faster recovery, reform, and sustainability – running parallel with our everyday drive for better treatments, devices, and services. We have already moved towards a highly collaborative, Precision Public Health-based outlook, and combined with collective efforts of our community, we are shaping national efforts to speed up the identification, and adoption of innovation, working to attract and deliver more cutting-edge research, strengthening our partnerships and the sharing of knowledge, expertise, and capability; and fundamentally driving benefits for our patients, our NHS, and the economy.

As discussed at the recent conference, immediate collaboration-led advancement has been required at this pivotal time and it has marked a point where thought and discussion has started to be turned into action and adoption across the 14 territorial health boards in Scotland.

There’s been the Accelerated National Innovation Adoption (ANIA) pathway which has already made pioneering progress in adopting at scale transformative technological innovations.

We also have three CSO Regional Innovation Hubs progressing well in the north, west, and south-east, benefitting their own regions as well as delivering at a national level.

Nevertheless, from the gathering of initial data to then doing research and analysis around it, there is recognition that the process must become faster and more collaborative, bringing in the triple helix model where appropriate.

Strong foundations have been built upon. Back in 2013, coinciding with the 40th anniversary, CSO set out its goals to “build Scotland as a health science nation” thanks to “a convergence of care with research” – and 10 years later, that has continued to meaningfully evolve.

While COVID-19 presented major challenges to all in the healthcare community, important work continues to restore the portfolio of research across Scotland, ensuring it can attract and deliver more research studies for the benefit of patients.

The pandemic saw significant homegrown research achievements.

RECOVERY was the world’s largest randomised controlled trial for COVID-19 and was open in most Scottish health boards. It identified the first proven treatments for the virus.

GenOMICC was led by the University of Edinburgh and studied the DNA of 2700 patients across 208 ICU departments around the world. It predicted the effect of treatments on patients, highlighting which drugs should be prioritised for clinical testing and potentially saving thousands of lives.

Through Precision Medicine, Scotland is now starting to target significant health concerns such as the incidence of multiple sclerosis in parts of the country that are amongst the highest in the world.

It will also place a focus on liver disease, now the biggest killer of 35–49-year-olds, with death rates in Scotland 70 per cent higher than the UK average, and survival rates sitting at only 60 per cent for patients requiring ICU treatment.

Three Scottish clinical research projects being run in collaboration between NHS Lothian and the University of Edinburgh aim to address these issues by further exploring Precision Medicine opportunities.

The ground-breaking ‘intelligent Diabetes’ (iDiabetes) project is another such opportunity being trialled in Tayside. This joint initiative between NHS Tayside and the University of Dundee, in partnership with the University of Aberdeen and NHS Education Scotland (NES) Digital, is looking at tailored diabetes treatments through enhanced testing and more sophisticated analysis of health data.

Thanks to over £6.9 million in Scottish Government funding, made available by Precision Medicine Alliance Scotland research awards, these projects have the potential to provide new treatment options for some of Scotland’s most prevalent, deadly, and devastating conditions.

Underpinning much of our progress, the country must also be digital-ready in all forms of healthcare in order to be best prepared to take advantage of emerging innovation. From artificial intelligence to remote monitoring advances, there is much to be excited about.

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