Don’t be bound by the current rulebook

The movement of researchers between academia and industry was a key focus of Academy activities in 2012/13. Professor Patrick Vallance FMedSci shared his views on making this transition at our Spring Meeting for Clinician Scientists in training, and former Academy of Medical Sciences/The Health Foundation Clinician Scientist Fellow Luke Devey shared his experiences in a Nature blog post. Sixty early career researchers attended an event in June 2013, held at IBM’s headquarters in London, entitled ‘Crossing the great divide? Moving between academia and industry’, at which Luke was one of the speakers.

Patrick Vallance encourages clinician scientists to be brave and take a risk. He accepted a job offer in industry seven years ago and says, I haven’t regretted a day of it. His current job isn’t actually that dissimilar to his previous role in academia which he says is to get the best possible people, give them the best environment to be creative and try and foster interdisciplinary research.’ He encourages anyone with an interest in finding out more to come and talk. You don’t have to make a decision to say I’m going to be in industry forever.

Luke Devey recognises the potential, as well as the shortcomings, of medicine, I have always wanted medicine to think of itself as a ‘technology industry’, using creative research and development to seek solutions to the problems of today to shape a better tomorrow. As Luke came to the end of a personal fellowship, it became clear to him that he might have to change tack to fulfill his aims he adds ‘part of me wanted to explore other opportunities to maximise the translational impact of my work, and I had come to realise that the critical steps on the long path between bench and bedside are most often taken in industry.

With a host of concerns and questions about taking a step into industry, Luke decided to do exactly what Patrick advocates. He says ‘I needed to go beyond the media reports and seek answers from the people actually working there. And Luke’s experience was the same as Patrick’s. ‘The first thing that struck me was the talent and enthusiasm of the people I met. These were highly respected individuals who had made significant contributions to their fields in biomedicine, and were easily recognisable in academia. Publication wasn’t a problem; they were conducting well-funded, high quality studies using novel compounds, and as a result, were fully expecting to produce high impact papers. Crucially, their outputs weren’t just papers and grants but real medicines for real patients.” In the same way that Patrick encourages industry scientists ‘to go to meetings, to publish, to interact.

With the possibility of a period of time working in industry on the GSK Esprit programme, Luke then set about ensuring he could return to his clinical academic career afterwards. He was pleasantly surprised at what he found. He added ‘By being open and negotiating with my funders, my University and the Esprit Programme, it has been possible to establish a ‘landing pad’ back in surgery and the University in three years, should I wish to use it. A large part of maintaining that open door meant working out what I would offer the public sector in three years’ time with the benefit of my private sector experience.’

Now working at GSK, Luke’s initial impressions are very positive. ‘I have rarely experienced a more stimulating flow of fascinating ideas or climbed a steeper learning curve. I am working on a number of familiar immunological pathways I have studied before, but using them to make real medicines for real patients. It feels healthy to be exposed to different ways of working, particularly the relentless clinical focus of the work – abandoning ideas which are interesting, but not going to create new treatments, and the way that projects are taken forward in collaborative teams as opposed to individuals working alone at the bench.’

Perhaps ignoring the rulebook really is a good idea!

Watch – Professor Patrick Vallance FMedSci talks about his career in medical science research, moving from academia to industry

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