Professor the Lord Ara Darzi of Denham, President of the British Science Association (BSA), has urged the scientific community to embrace interdisciplinarity and engage more closely with policymakers in the UK to speed up the implementation of ideas and explore innovative new ways of working, as part of his Presidential Address. Lord Darzi’s Presidential Address – his first public speech in his role as President of the BSA – was broadcast on Friday 18 September at 11:00 BST.

Please find a PDF transcript of Lord Darzi's Presidential Address here.

Darzi, a practising NHS surgeon, holds the Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London, and is the Co-Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation, called for a “relationship reset” between the scientific community and policymakers as the COVID-19 crisis continues to grip the country.

Lord Darzi commented:

“Britain is a science superpower but at times the relationship between the scientific community and politicians has been strained.

“We need a “relationship reset” as we enter the next phase of the battle against COVID-19 to build a stronger partnership of mutual trust and respect.

“There is a moral imperative for scientists to engage with policymakers—and a moral duty for politicians to listen to and act on what they say.

“We should be clear that scientists advise, but ministers decide.”

Darzi explained that politicians need to be more transparent about the evidence they use for making decisions—and that scientists need to make sure their public interventions are always evidence-based and avoid “irresponsible speculation”.

He added that the evidence-base should always be made public so that it was subject to proper scrutiny and peer review, arguing that this had been one of the major problems at the early stage of the pandemic.

Darzi joins the BSA at a turbulent time for science and science policy. With the backdrop of the current global COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes that he can use his Presidency to help influence the next generation of scientists to see the benefit of crossing the boundaries, not just between scientific disciplines but also into policy.

He explained that the innovative and ground-breaking progress that has been made by the scientific community and wider health sector over the last six months to detect, prevent and treat COVID-19 should be a catalyst for the future:

“Innovation has moved at a tremendous speed, and that’s the type of flexibility and pragmatism needed when faced with a major threat, such as a pandemic.

“We can learn from what’s happening now and embed this into the way that science and innovation are translated into our society in general. For example, in my own field of robotic surgery, it has taken as long as 15 years for some of the first discoveries to reach fruition and to be translated for the benefit of patients within the NHS.

“Science is there to create value; health value, contributing to our economy, and also social and environmental.

“My message for new and upcoming scientists is to be bold, leave your comfort zone, cross boundaries, have self-confidence, and do the right thing. If you want to make a difference, look to impact policy – you need to seek buy-in from those who hold the keys to the funding and decision-making.”

At the height of the pandemic, Darzi swapped his scalpel for shifts in the intensive care unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in London, where he said he learnt first-hand the challenges NHS staff and clinicians were facing on the frontline:

“There was a lot of fear amongst the NHS staff in those early days – partly because of the difficulty in getting access to tests, but also because the bed capacity was so limited. It was a very difficult time. So, as the Intensive Care beds began to fill up and we saw more and more staff shortages, I decided to volunteer.

“And although some of my patients have been in Intensive Care before, I’ve never really worked in Intensive Care. So, I did a quick course in ventilation and lent a hand wherever I could.

“And I have to say, the heroes in ICU are the nurses. I spent two weeks helping the nurses turn the patients – to help their ventilation – and on one occasion, even helped to clean and disinfect the bins. In that scenario, it really is ‘all hands on deck’, and the number of volunteers who put themselves forward at that time was extraordinary.”

Darzi, who was born in Iraq to Armenian parents, said his other top priority in the year-long role at the BSA was to promote greater diversity at the top of science:

“I want to see a more diverse science community, with more women, more people from ethnic minorities, and more people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. 

“Diversity is vital so that we get the best talent—but also so we get the most creative and innovative research because that’s how you get fresh ideas.

“And the leaders of our scientific community must reflect that diversity.”

Professor Darzi’s Presidential Address takes form as an ‘in conversation’ with journalist, writer and broadcaster, Samira Ahmed, and is available to watch on the BSA’s YouTube channel from Friday 18 September at 11:00 BST.