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Future by quality: life sciences and research in Italy

Bresso (Milan), 27/11/2017, National Interest

Underpinning discussions at this National Interest debate was the premise that the life sciences sector will be strategic in driving the recovery in competitiveness of advanced economies and ensuring a future based on quality. It was noted, in this regard, that recent findings highlight that, at a global level, the sector is experiencing a marked period of prosperity, with the pipeline of research having reached record levels, propelled in part by innovations linked to the spread of genomics and precision medicine. In addition, the life sciences, especially in Italy, represent a high multiplier factor for sectoral interdependencies, thereby guaranteeing huge spillovers of knowledge that is harnessed as it trickles through, producing extensive knock-on effects, including a strong impact in terms of savings.

It was suggested that these results have been facilitated by the progressive transition from a purely industry-based closed innovation model, where research is chiefly carried out by firms in-house, to an open innovation paradigm, which has led firms to seek out technological tools, knowhow, and skills from outside, hence entailing more broad-ranging and far-reaching collaboration with different actors. At the same time, the perspective on drugs has also changed, with a progression from a purely product-based to a process-oriented approach in which the focus has become holistic, giving rise to a need for new and more innovative governance procedures that are capable of following up on the added value generated for the patient and evaluating the associated outcomes.

The market of ideas was also characterized as increasingly international. Yet, while on the one hand geographic proximity is losing importance as a constraining factor for development, with more and more possibilities emerging for creating synergies and networks with all interested parties, on the other, research still cannot dispense with critical mass nor can it fail to take into account the sweeping "infrastructuralization" of the knowledge sector, for which proximity continues to be a core requirement.

Viewed as a necessary upshot of this was that while globalization generates great opportunities, these need to be confronted with strategic awareness. The new collaborative model and the international context were seen as representing an opportunity for Italy to capitalize on the paradigms that have always characterized its research system: the increasing importance accorded to clinical trials makes it possible to showcase skills that are widely held in the Italian system, together with the crucial role played by the national health service; Italian basic research is particularly competitive in therapeutic areas that have a significant bearing on the international pipeline; and Italy ranks first in the world for the percentage of drugs with value-based contracts attached, enabling these treatments to move beyond a purely product-based approach. Moreover, in the new model, the winning research of the future will come from small and multidisciplinary teams, primarily situated within the academic community or from there evolving in other directions.

It was stressed that in order to pursue this process of bolstering the Italian life sciences sector, it will be necessary to get on top of multiple issues. First and foremost of these will be on the technological front, particularly in light of the increasing availability of big data, which makes the development of disruptive clinical and pharmacological innovations possible. It was acknowledged, however, that up till now Italy has not hit upon appropriate methods to fully exploit the potential of big data. Furthermore, the country’s funding models continue to be weak in shepherding innovative ideas and transferring them across to industry, owing partly to the inability to fully exploit the possibilities – albeit not always best-suited – offered by the national and European context. Cited as compounding these issues was the need for across-the-board investment in human capital, given that currently there is a scarcity of people specifically trained to respond to the rapid changes generated by innovation.

In conclusion, it was urged that the ramp-up in pace witnessed in the life sciences sector provides all players with an opportunity to rethink their activities and carve out a significant role for themselves in boosting the country’s growth. In a collaboration-driven landscape where success depends on integration between the various nodes in the network, on understanding the innovative potential of each individual player, and on establishing appropriate governance models, it is not feasible to suppose that the challenges of the future may be effectively tackled using an approach that is grounded in paradigms of the past.