Strengthening Lab Relationships & Collaborations Post-Covid-19
In December we united Professors Mirela Delibegovic, James Leiper, Ruth Loos and Toni Vidal-Puig to reflect on 'The Future of the Lab after Covid-19'. Has the pandemic strengthened the relationship between the academic lab, the NHS and industry? How will lab leaders have to adapt their leadership style to the change in working patterns and relationships wrought by the pandemic? Mirela and Toni share their thoughts below.
Mirela Delibegovic is Dean for Industrial Engagement in Research & Knowledge Transfer at the University of Aberdeen. Her research explores how ageing and poor nutrition lead to development of diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other, age-related comorbidities.
Since May 2020, Professor Delibegovic has been using AI to create a test suitable for mass screening for Covid-19, a project worth £140K which has been part-funded by the Scottish Government.
Has the pandemic strengthened the relationship between industry, academia and the NHS?
The speed at which the vaccine development around the globe has taken place has demonstrated directly how important it is to have a close working relationship between academia, industry and healthcare and how much can be achieved by such collaborations.
The collaboration between the NHS, academia and industry has enabled delivery of clinical trials and ground-breaking research at a phenomenal pace. Access to vital samples collected by the clinicians working in the NHS, have allowed for the development and testing of innovative diagnostic kits which would not have been possible with single efforts.
The pandemic has shown us just how important it is to forge these networks and how much we can achieve if we work together.
Toni Vidal-Puig is Professor of Molecular Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Cambridge, Associate Director at the Medical Research Council, and an Honorary Consultant in Metabolic Medicine at the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
Professor Vidal-Puig’s lab focuses on understanding why obesity is associated with cardiometabolic complications. He has forged strong research links with China; he is also a Professor at Nanjing University, and Programme Leader on Obesity at the Cambridge University Nanjing Centre of Technology and Innovation.
How will lab leadership change in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?
[Editor's note: below is an abridged version of Toni's reflections on the styles of leadership that will thrive during a crisis. Click here to read Toni's response in full.]
The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in fewer people working in the laboratory, changes in the pattern of scientific interactions, physical barriers to direct communication, all in a context of anxiety and uncertainty about the present and the future. However, this turbulent time has enabled new leaders to emerge, providing them with opportunities to show their character, determination and resilience.
It requires sophistication to lead a highly competitive, heterogeneous group with different cultural backgrounds, roles, needs and expectations. A research team is a community of knowledge formed by intelligent, creative, technically-gifted experts with high expectations and, sometimes, big egos.
In a crisis, leading a lab with autocratic leadership styles may be tempting. However, in a sustained crisis, the autocratic leader will struggle to keep their "kingdom" under strict control requiring much energy and still losing opportunities. Similarly, leaders with a transactional directive style using rewards and penalties as incentives might reach their goals, but their laboratories will not go beyond their transactional obligations. In my experience, this style can alienate the entrepreneurial-type of scientists who place high value on creativity and the sense of ownership.
Another type of leadership jeopardized by the uncertainty is the bureaucratic leadership, leading according to hierarchical authority and defined rules and processes. The "we've always done it this way" no longer works because the context of the current crisis requires a more flexible approach.
Leaders with a more participative, democratic style will perform better in the Covid-19 pandemic. However, their emphasis on involving the whole team in decision making may not be very efficient and cost-effective when rapid decisions are required, particularly when communication depends on virtual connectivity.
The changes required in the laboratories during the pandemic are a unique opportunity for transformational leadership, enabling innovation by empowering the laboratory members to own their work. This type of leadership requires a culture of trust in the team, awareness of the vision of the laboratory, and transparency in dissemination of information so the lab members can make informed decisions.
For me, the critical challenges of a leader during crisis conditions are: a) being self-aware of a natural style that may be ingrained in their genes and modulated by their previous experiences, and b) being aware and connected to the team they are leading. The leader should not function with a single leadership mode, but be receptive and flexible enough to move through different styles according to the contexts and individuals involved, never at the expense of genuine empathy.
The pandemic is an opportunity to reshape leadership practices towards a more participative leadership that takes advantage of the high potential of lab members to promote their competitiveness while creating a supportive, non-toxic environment.