UK CMO puts science at heart of advice

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For Dame Sally Davies, last week’s promotion to chief medical officer – “the nation’s doctor”, as she puts it – is above all an opportunity to put science at the heart of the National Health Service.

Talking to the Financial Times in her first interview as CMO, Dame Sally repeatedly emphasises the supremacy of science in future decision-making at the Department of Health.

Governments have recently come under criticism for not taking scientific advice seriously enough – most recently from the Commons science and technology committee’s report on planning for emergencies such as pandemic flu.

But Dame Sally is determined not to keep science at bay.

“The CMO has a key role in making sure that science and evidence are brought into the advice government receives on health and medical issues,” she says. “My role will be not only to bring in the science but also to talk about it publicly.”

The first woman CMO since the post was created in the 19th century, Dame Sally may also be the most powerful incumbent so far, because she will combine the new job with the one she has held since 2004: head of research and development in the NHS.

As R&D director, Dame Sally has transformed the scientific credentials of the NHS. Research funds, once distributed countrywide without regard to the quality or relevance of the work, are now channelled through the National Institute for Health Research according to medical need and academic excellence.

At the same time she helped persuade the previous government to double the Department of Health’s R&D budget to £1bn a year and the present one to raise it modestly in real terms up to 2014. “We have transformed the quantity and quality of health research in this country,” she says.

On Monday Dame Sally launched Britain’s biggest funding competition for medical research proposals. The NIHR is to make £775m available over the next four years for “translational research” designed to move medical science from laboratory to patients.

“The successful NHS and university partnerships will receive long-term funding to provide the best environment to support cutting-edge translational research,” she says.

Dame Sally persuaded the government to let her keep her R&D leadership role while she is CMO, on the grounds that science underlies both posts.

She also has unfinished business on the R&D front, conceding that more needs to be done to reduce bureaucratic barriers that still slow the progress of treatments to clinical trials in the NHS. But from now on, she says, “public health and the CMO role will take precedence. On R&D I will still be taking a leadership role but I no longer need to drive everything forward.”

Although outgoing by nature, Dame Sally insists she is not looking forward to being thrust into the limelight as the public face of medicine whenever a crisis strikes. “I do not feel comfortable [about appearing in the mass media] but maybe I will become comfortable with practice,” she says. “You will not find me doing media work because I enjoy it but I will do it because we have to be open and communicate with the public.”

She is chief medical adviser to the UK government as a whole, representing the country internationally, but she will play more of a role in England than in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where the devolved governments have their own CMOs.

In the absence of an emergency, a key part of her work will be to help the government establish its promised new public health service for England.

All of which will leave no time for Dame Sally to continue working even part time in her own medical field of haematology. “I believe I can do more for patients as CMO,” she says.

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