In global trust barometers, scientists have long featured among the professions most trusted by the public, but pharmaceutical companies remain the least trusted. This is an interesting dichotomy, given that most pharmaceutical employees are scientists.
Public trust has been an issue for the pharmaceutical industry for many years, driven principally by a few high-profile examples of negative practice from several years ago. Even in 2019, it was still the most poorly regarded of industries.
That was until the world was hit by COVID-19.
Since the outbreak, confidence that scientists will act in the public’s best interest has grown, as has trust in the healthcare industry as a whole.
Industries banding together in the global response to COVID-19, coupled with increased curiosity about how medicines and vaccines are developed, has also had a positive impact on pharma’s reputation. This provides an opportunity for the public to change their perceptions of ‘big pharma’ in the long term, but what’s the best way to achieve this?
Transparency in communication is vital
Scientists and researchers have been increasingly visible across media channels during the pandemic to address the public’s concerns and advise those in charge. However, their increasingly public-facing position means that quality of communication is vital. Dr Cevat Giray Aksoy, Lecturer in Economics at King’s College London and co-author of a paper on public trust in science, stated that “if scientists fail to explain their findings clearly and concisely enough to inspire trust in public, people may perceive them as elitists or inaccessible.”
When a participant in a large late-stage AstraZeneca study testing a COVID-19 vaccine suffered a serious adverse reaction, the company immediately, and voluntarily, paused vaccinations and issued a statement where they firmly reiterated their commitment to maintaining “the integrity of the trials.” The following week, as part of efforts to maintain public transparency, researchers at Oxford University, published a comprehensive document explaining that the adverse event was unlikely to be related to the vaccine.
Following the science, not the headlines
Increased public and political pressure to accelerate development of a COVID-19 vaccine, such as President Trump’s ‘Operation Warp Speed’, have only created greater uncertainty about the intentions of drug companies.
In response to this, as part of efforts to engender trust and maintain public confidence, CEOs of nine leading biopharma companies announced a historic pledge in September. They outlined a united commitment to uphold the integrity of the scientific process as they work towards approval of the first COVID-19 vaccines. This includes high scientific and ethical standards, stringent requirements for approval submission and ensuring global access to a range of vaccine options.
Public pledges like this only strengthen the power of collaborations of this kind between academics, pharma companies, regulatory bodies and, most importantly, trial volunteers. Continuing to communicate good practices and ground-breaking science, while keeping patient safety at the heart of the process, will provide optimism and hope for the development and approval of a vaccine.
As the world continues to follow the scientific progress around the COVID pandemic, the pharma industry has the opportunity demonstrate its integrity and commitment to human health, to inform and educate with transparency, and, fundamentally, to win back trust at a time when the world needs it most.
By Amisha Bhudia, Account Manager in Madano’s Healthcare practice.
Expectations across the energy sector were high yesterday, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s gave his “winds of change” vision for the energy sector by committing the Government to the modest target of increasing offshore wind power capacity from 30 GW to 40 GW, by 2030. He breezily claimed that this source of low carbon energy could generate enough electricity to power all the UK’s homes within a decade.
Alongside this pledge, the Prime Minister promised £160m to upgrade ports and infrastructure for building turbines and boosting offshore wind capacity, which he claimed will create 2,000 jobs in construction and support 60,000 more. We will, according to the Prime Minister, see 1 GW of floating wind turbines hove into view by 2030, too.
The Prime Minister’s backing for offshore wind is not a major surprise in and of itself, given the Government’s focus on tackling climate change in much of its messaging. And given the scale of investment announced yesterday is modest by international standards, industry will be looking for much more in the Government’s 10-point “Build Back Greener” plan if the UK is to establish itself as the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of wind power and renewable energy more broadly.
The Prime Minister’s lofty assertion that offshore wind, alone, can solve a large part of the energy question should be taken with a large pinch of sea salt or viewed as a symptom of his broad brush, oratorical style. His claim that offshore wind could power all the UK’s homes by 2030 omitted to mention that homes account for only about a third of power use. The Government is well aware that wind is only one piece of the testing net zero puzzle and that other low carbon energy sources, such as solar and nuclear power, will need support to scale up and meet the needs of wider energy challenge.
While the Prime Minister’s press release did take the opportunity to breathe fresh life into the Government’s plans for renewables by indicating that the Government will set a 2021 target to “double the capacity of renewable energy in the next Contracts for Difference auction,” he provided little detail on its proposals for solar, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency or nuclear power.
Still, we can be confident that this announcement is the first stage of the “Build Back Greener” plan for a green industrial revolution from the Government, with No 10 promising further, concrete details later this year to “accelerate our progress towards net zero emissions by 2050.” There are conflicting reports on the date that this plan will be published, with both late October and late November suggested.
The long-delayed Energy White Paper is also reportedly set to be published this month. The paper will outline the Government’s approach to delivering its net zero target and will hopefully clear the air on various issues, such as large-scale nuclear, and provide confidence to the renewables sector that has weathered COVID-19 admirably and produced record-breaking levels of low-carbon energy.
To our mind, what is most notable from this policy announcement is not its content but the fact that a commitment to offshore wind is the headline announcement of a Prime Minister at the Conservative Party Conference, during a time of public health and economic crisis.
Whatever the rationale behind this decision, it confirms that addressing climate change has much greater importance for this Government compared to recent predecessors.
Written by James Watson, Madano.
In April this year, Madano reported on the challenging situation faced by the UK’s universities as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Likening the sector’s difficult circumstances to a game of Kerplunk in which all of the straws have suddenly been removed, we predicted that “a university degree could be a tough sell to the 2020/21 intake who may consider a gap year instead.”
That reads like a real understatement following recent events at Manchester Metropolitan University. Students at the campus described themselves as “completely neglected” after they were forced to self-isolate for two weeks when 127 of them tested positive for COVID-19. The situation left 1,700 students all trying to source food – and, more importantly for them, alcohol – from the same local supermarkets. Security guards prevented residents from going outside to shop amid complaints of “little in the way of pastoral care”.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, is also less of a fan of the university experience than some of his predecessors. He recently ditched the target, introduced by New Labour and adopted by successive governments, of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education, replacing it with a focus on further education and vocational training.
Accusing universities of failing to prepare graduates for the UK workforce, he said: “For too long, we’ve been training people for jobs that don’t exist. We need to train them for the jobs that do exist and will exist in the future. We have to end the focus on qualifications for qualifications’ sake.” And, this week, prime minister Boris Johnson finally delivered on recommendations from the Augar Review into post-16 education, pledging to end the gulf between further and higher education, commenting:
“We seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want.”
The prime minister and education secretary’s comments chime with the sentiments of a couple of recently published books. Both political philosopher Michael Sandel – in The Tyranny of Merit – and journalist David Goodhart – in Head, Hand, Heart – argue that it’s time to reassess our notions of success and failure, and particularly how they relate to higher education and work.
And last month, Stefan Collini, professor emeritus of intellectual history at the University of Cambridge, delivered a withering assessment of the UK’s higher education sector:
“Universities are overcrowded and understaffed; contact hours are reduced; most teaching in the first two years is done by temporary and part-time staff; and underprepared students suffer debilitating stress. Moreover, instead of reliably leading to a better job, all it guarantees is a higher tax bill for the next 30 years.”
As a number of voices begin to question the actual purpose of universities, many institutions may need to adapt by reframing what they stand for and the benefit they deliver to society.
Despite mounting challenges, there are still opportunities for universities to thrive. One possibility is the government’s levelling up agenda, which promises to redirect investment to regions outside London and the south-east. Keen to retain its newly won “red wall” across the Midlands and the north of England, the present administration is likely to welcome potential development in those areas.
Universities have a real opportunity to play a central role in transforming their local area, whether through forging partnerships with local authorities and businesses, providing students with the skills needed for the region to thrive or persuading students to live and work in the area following graduation. Showing their commitment to their community in this way would allow universities to demonstrate their ongoing relevance and value in what is likely to remain an unpredictable environment for the foreseeable future.
What students want
As discussed by Sandel and Goodhart in their respective publications, traditional academic criteria provide a limited measure of an individual’s overall knowledge, skills and intelligence.
In fact, Madano’s own research into the higher education sector has found that students are seeking to acquire more tangible skills that they can apply directly to the workplace, and often in more practical disciplines.
Today’s students regard employment at the end of a degree as a given. Considering the huge amount of money they’re expected to shell out in tuition fees and the tens of thousands of pounds of debt they’re destined to graduate with, is it any wonder?
Given the current expectation that a degree will inevitably lead to a job, perhaps it’s time for universities to improve the vocational support they offer students beyond simply academic preparation. Many already give advice on job applications and interview skills to improve undergraduates’ chances of securing a position once they’ve completed their studies, but they could develop this offer and make it available to a greater number of students.
Aside from traditional employment, there could be an opportunity for universities to broaden their role by encouraging greater entrepreneurship and helping students to help themselves. By advising students how to set up their own company and putting young entrepreneurs in touch with potential partners, the higher education sector could recast itself as a genuine friend to business and safeguard its continuing relevance.
More than at any other time in recent history, the value and purpose of universities are being questioned right across the political spectrum. Outside of the familiar top-tier names, universities need to reassess and rethink why they do what they do and then rearticulate that concept in a way that speaks to students and meets wider societal objectives, keeping both government and the general public on side.
Universities that are agile, maintain two-way communication with their student body and take advantage of the current government agenda are likely to be best positioned to take the lead in shaping the sector as it moves forward.
By Dan Townshend, Senior Research Manager in Madano’s Insights practice.