Science, Technology and Innovation for Health

OECD member countries as well as non-members around the world share interests in applying STI to prevent, cure and alleviate suffering from illness. But innovative approaches are needed to hasten the development of knowledge and translation into effective treatments and practices. New diagnostics and medical therapies are urgently needed at a time when pharmaceutical research is going through a crisis of confidence. Whilst the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia increases in line with population ageing, effective therapies remain elusive despite major investments. As the recent Ebola outbreak suggests, pandemics pose a global threat. Infectious diseases are still important causes of mortality in many developed countries. This has created enormous demand for new anti-microbial agents and vaccines, for which profitable business models are not well-established. 

New breakthroughs in basic research are increasing our understanding of normal physiological and disease processes but, with a few notable exceptions, the development of effective therapies is slow and highly unpredictable. There are many different kinds of barriers to successful innovation in the health field, in addition to scientific complexity. These include science policies and organisation, IP environments, and governance and regulatory issues. As science and the health care industry evolve and societal challenges and expectations change, new models of innovation and international collaboration are starting to appear, new types of ecosystems are emerging, with new kinds of partnerships between public, private and philanthropic actors. 

More attention also needs to be paid to understanding the unique policy dimensions of new and emerging technologies. Advances in genomics  (e.g., genomic variation analysis, epigenetics, and metabolomics), for instance, have the potential to greatly improve medicine and healthcare, but raise challenging policy issues. The increasing technical ability around stem cells opens new frontiers in regenerative medicine, but regulatory approaches remain uncertain. Emerging technologies in genetics, regenerative medicine, and those deploying nanomaterials share certain characteristics that make dedicated policy attention important, namely:  (1) they tend to be fast evolving and with open trajectories; (2) they tend to enable other major areas of work; (3) they often raise novel ethical, legal and social issues (both about physical risk and other basic moral questions) and even political controversy (e.g., GMO debates). 

Two policy areas are of particular importance in the most critical innovations for health: 

New Innovation platforms for high impact areas

Mobilising innovation in areas of greatest global need presents a grand challenge for STI policy. A new generation of international collaborations is developing to address these critical areas.  International research and innovation platforms are connecting networks of actors from academia, the public sector, philanthropies, established pharmaceutical companies and start-up firms. In the area of neglected diseases and vaccine development, philanthropic funders are assembling new R&D ecosystems by innovating funding mechanisms and IP strategies to better align researchers and preserve efficient levels of openness and sharing. However, there has been little assessment of innovative R&D frameworks and how governments, non-profit organisations and private companies can better use them (for example to fill investment gaps).

Policies on Emerging and Enabling Technologies 

Because of their high scientific, economic, and political stakes, policies promoting open and collaborative science and appropriate licensing approaches may be of high importance in these technological areas. Foundational patents on these technologies can form barriers to scientific work and entrepreneurship in areas that build on the patent subject matter. Further, for these technologies, the goal of good policy should not just be development and deployment, but socially responsible development in accord with public values so that trust in science and governing institutions is preserved.  For instance, the health improvement implications of gene editing are high but there are potential dangers and ethical controversies. These technologies raise common regulatory issues.  For instance, they often fall into regulatory gaps and have varying treatment across countries.  While some regulatory differences reflect differences in values across societies, others reflect a simple lack of coordination. Alignment and standards should be explored before regulatory differences become entrenched.