Five minutes with Professor Janet Hemingway CBE

Five minutes with Professor Janet Hemingway CBE

Janet Hemingway has dedicated her life to fighting tropical disease.

As director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, she has rebuilt the school to ensure that it is a “centre of excellence that impacts directly and positively on health nationally and internationally”.

“Empowering others – that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning”

From the beginning it was, and still is, the science [that got me out of bed] but now it’s rivalled by helping others reach their potential. We have a large cohort of people who can go out and have an impact on health globally. If your people don’t get out of bed because they’re really excited to do what they do, and be really proud of what they do, then you will lose out on a huge amount. I don’t think it matters what your business is, if people don’t feel empowered in that way then you won’t get the best out of them.

“There’s a need to rebalance academia’s role in the economy”

I think there’s a mixed spectrum. I’m not saying we should stop doing blue-skies research at all but I think there’s a need for rebalancing. I think we ought to teach academics at a much earlier stage about intellectual property, business development, and product development so that they have a better understanding of the process because it’s a well-worn process that industry follows. It really shouldn’t come as a shock to academics but it does to most. You cannot expect industry to develop products for a market if it does not understand the market and does not understand the disease. You have to put industry and academia together if you are actually going to get new products created.

“You can’t just do research and hope someone else picks it up”

We were delighted when the UK government said that academia needed to demonstrate impact cases. While many organisations struggled to demonstrate the impact of their research, we had way more cases of impact than we could possibly use. That’s because we are true to the school’s mission of improving life in the tropics. And you can’t improve life in the tropics by doing research and hoping somebody else will pick it up. So, we have moved into that translational space: we’ve been involved with industry in developing diagnostics such as IT systems and drugs, and clinical trials for vaccines. We’ve been working with high-profile policymakers to ensure best practice is put out there and gets used.

“The biggest challenge is managing people and the more people, the harder it is”

When you grow rapidly as an organisation, as we have, the challenge is incorporating all the great new things while keeping that family feel. To do it, we’ve codified our culture in terms of a mission, to do what we say on the tin. We are very clear about that – everybody from the cleaners up. We have also made sure that, where we can, nobody works in silos. We have a lot of people of different disciplines who work together here and to common goals.

“There aren’t many cities that have what Liverpool has”

Liverpool has so much going for it: great connections, really nice places to live, a high standard of living, good quality facilities and the ability to expand those facilities. There aren’t too many cities where you can put all of those things together. That being said, I think there is more that could be done in Liverpool. We are at the starting gates and moving in the right direction. There’s plenty more potential to achieve.

“Only recently have people started to understand the gap between industry and academia”

Academia in general, when left to its own devices, has been very good at reproducing other academics and not particularly good at getting involved with business development or product development – no matter the products. There’s a lot of lip service paid to that and I think it’s only recently that people have started to understand that translational research agenda, and just how big that gap is – the gap between where industry can pick something up that comes out of academia and where academia feels it can pick up the ball and run with it. It’s that translational space that has been poorly understood and not well served, either by the funding community or the academic community.

“My vision of a vibrant economy is collaboration”

A vibrant economy is one where we get different sectors collaborating and working together in a much more coherent format. Collaboration that generates products that are saleable, possibly manufactured here, creates jobs and builds the national skill base. It says to the world in general, “this is a place that understands how to define what products are needed and then brings innovative thinking into doing that development”. The number of real concrete examples where we’ve got that to work, and ones that we can point to, is relatively limited. Largely, academia in general and the funders ignored this at that point in time [20-30 years ago]. What has changed is the understanding that academia can’t sit in its ivory tower. The aspirations and requirements produced in these towers need to be picked up on and it needs to be made easier for industry to pull on that expertise.