Life Science is about moving effortlessly across disciplines and sectors, about reaping the benefits of excellent research for the betterment of health, and for creating an ecosystem that is attractive to talents and conducive to the development of new treatments, diagnostics, and medicines. As I see it, Life Science is also very much about reciprocal inspiration: breakthroughs in basic research inspire innovation, and the fruits of innovation inspire basic research.
Life science is typically defined as follows:
“The life sciences can be defined as the science of all living things. They deal with research into how living organisms function, interact, and affect their surroundings.”
In my introductory speech at the joint KI – SciLifeLab symposium last week, I challenged the audience with a rhetorical question: what is missing from this definition, given the lessons learned through the current pandemic?
To create some suspense, I will defer my answer onto the end of this blog.
Karolinska Institutet has high ambitions for life science. In our Strategy 2030 we state that “KI shall be a driving force in realising Sweden’s potential in life science and in bringing together relevant actors.” To make headway and speed up progress we have to work on many different levels. Obviously, promoting excellent research is key – this is the platform on which everything else must be built. On the regional level we need to maintain and strengthen the interactions between SciLifeLab, partner universities, the health care system, patient organizations, and industrial actors. We have come far in this regard.
But we must also engage on the national and international levels. Many obstacles – such as those that came to the fore during the current pandemic – cannot be tackled in our own region but require the attention of the Swedish government. One example is having adequate access to health data. It was a relief to learn last week that the government will look into the possibility of improving the use and availability of such data.
The government’s advisory partnership group for health and life sciences of which I am a member will soon put forward a number of suggestions on how to adjust national policies and remove obstacles that currently stymie the development of life science. One of these suggestions is that current life science initiatives should be made more robust with long-term financial support. A life science strategy based on short-term projects rather than more permanent structures are unlikely to stand as attractive for national or international talents and diverts energy from where we need it the most.
In my speech at the joint KI – SciLifeLab symposium last week I concluded by bringing to the table the following five visions:
- The future life science community will “compress time”: the time from research breakthroughs to breakthroughs in patient care will be shortened considerably, for the benefit of patients and the society at large
- The Life Science community will aptly and effectively synergize with new initiatives and funding streams (the generous Data Driven Life Science initiative by Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation being particularly relevant right now)
- The Life Science ecosystem will serve as a springboard for expanding and deepening the collaboration within Stockholm Trio (Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm University, and KTH Royal Institute of Technology) and with Uppsala University.
- Cooperation in the realm of Life Science will help unite KI by forging new interdisciplinary links between our research environments
The fifth vision
And now to the fifth vision which also constitutes the answer to my initial question – about the missing element in the definition of life science referred to above:
My fifth vision is that the life science community of the future will be very much concerned with building preparedness for new health crises. Lessons could be learned from how rapidly KI and SciLifeLab were able to shift into large scale testing, which was critical in the early phase of the pandemic. Thus, Life science is not only about life today but also about prerequisites for continued life (as it reads in Swelife’s definition of the term). In my mind, Life Science 2.0 should help tackle the challenges that have been unveiled and exacerbated by the current crisis. We need to be better prepared on the global scale, to ensure that the next pathogen will not be allowed the same head start that it got this time around. And we need to engage the life science sector to help close the technology gap that is manifested by the low production capacity for medicines and vaccines in low-income countries. As we painfully have realized during the pandemic, this gap cannot be compensated by distributing resources equitably and justly when a crisis hits. In addition, “prerequisites for continued life” also point to the need for the life science sector to engage with the relationship between living organisms and the environment – the relevance of which is highlighted by the climate change.
Looking forward I am very happy to see that SciLifeLab has entered its second decade on a very strong basis. Well aligned with the government research agenda and strategically engaged with the major private funder of Swedish science, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the SciLifeLab is poised to bring the Swedish life science ecosystem to an even more prominent position internationally.
Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to the SciLifeLab Committee KI, who took the initiative to organize last week’s symposium. I hope this will be a recurring event aimed at creating a community for KI researchers at SciLifeLab and to strengthen the ties between SciLifeLab and Karolinska Institutet.