Experts Discuss Prospects and Challenges in Life Science Research at ITMO University
Which education and research initiatives should be promoted in medicine, life sciences and health sciences? Which specialists do these fields need? And why are the competencies of sociologists and science communicators crucial for conducting high-quality research? These and other questions were in the center of the discussion at a business breakfast that was recently held at ITMO University. The meeting brought together representatives of ITMO, the European University at St. Petersburg, Higher School of Economics, as well as the Northwestern Federal District Association of Oncologists and Cancer Prevention Foundation.
Why conduct research and educational projects in the fields of life science and medicine?
Life science is a group of scientific fields that study the nature, structure, functions and behavior of living beings, their evolution, development, and interconnections, as well as the relations that develop between them and the environment at large. Although historically biology has taken the centerplace among all life sciences, the latest technological advancements in the field of biotechnologies and molecular biology have led to the burgeoning of different specializations and origination of major innovative interdisciplinary projects in various fields such as medicine, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food industry and others.
According to different think tanks, it is this field that in recent years has consistently been included in the top of the most promising and fastest-growing fields in the world. For example, as per the “Comprehensive Program for the Development of Biotechnologies in the Russian Federation for the Period until 2020”, the general global biotechnology market will have reached a level of 2 trillion US dollars in 2025, with the growth rates per different market segments fluctuating from 5-7 to 30% each year.
Apart from the increasing interest in this field and the growing demand in laboratory-based research, Russia is also seeing a growing demand in sociological research, including that in the field of medicine, notes Andrey Kozhanov, director at the Centre for Student Academic Development of the Higher School of Economics overseeing various projects in the field of sociology of science.
How is society’s mistrust in medical professionals formed, and what does it consist of? How effective are the re-qualification programs for doctors? And what is behind some educational outreach programs’ failure to bring any result? According to the expert, until recently practically no one has tried to find a comprehensive answer to these questions.
“In the past couple of months, I have encountered a very stable demand for practical centers solving prevention-focused and communication tasks in the field of medical knowledge, as well as for training and re-qualification of doctors and the evaluation of sociological effectiveness of these programs. There is a large number of different local initiatives that aim to improve scientific and medical awareness, but it so happens that until very recently no one has particularly thought about measuring their effectiveness, including in terms of their impact on the audience and the financial costs involved. In other words, there’s been practically no research on what happens to patients and doctors once these programs are over, how societal perceptions of medical practices form in general,” commented Andrey Kozhanov.
One of the positive examples is a research initiated by the Konstantin Khabensky Charity Foundation, which aimed to change societal attitudes to the topic of oncology and lower the level of cancerophobia in the country. But projects like this are still quite rare, and the general situation shows that pseudoscientific practices still hold a lot of weight in society. One of the possible solutions to this problem, as identified by Andrey Kozhanov, is the continuous development of research projects in the field of sociology of science.
“In this case, sociology – through different qualitative and quantitative approaches – has to solve the problem of searching for communication and dialog between society and evidence-based medicine. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that this kind of sociological support is a complex and responsibility-heavy task because there are practically no measurement methods we could apply to this sphere. There are some international analogs that lack applicability in our realities. That’s why, for instance, among other things we are currently focusing on the development of methods that would allow us to study different parascientific and paramedical beliefs. This is not easy as not all respondents would tell you about something that they believe in in the depths of their mind – like the belief in the magical properties of zirconium bracelets and such,” exemplified Andrey Kozhanov.
Head of ITMO University’s Center for Science Communication Daria Denisova, who organized the meeting, also expounded on the growing interest in life science research by medical and biotech companies, as well as different laboratories.
According to the expert, more and more companies are becoming interested in analytics specialists that possess research and statistical analysis skills and are generally capable of professionally applying an evidence-based approach to the analysis of different processes and phenomena occurring in the field of biotechnologies and medicine. These processes may take place on the clinical level, too, but apart from this the researchers also have to be able to carry out a qualitative and quantitative analysis of large-scale education outreach projects.
Daria Denisova added that this demand is already experienced in practice by the graduates of ITMO’s Master’s program in science communication, which is in the fourth year of its implementation.
“Our aspirations center on the creation of interdisciplinary research projects in the field of life sciences. And they are not unfounded: a lot of the Master’s program graduates are already working in communications in the medical sphere. From their example, we can see that science communicators are often expected to organize and carry out research. Of course, we’re already providing them with an analytical layer, showing them how to work with information – they have a special course and a research work on this topic – but this isn’t enough. That’s what created the necessity for the discussion of which educational and research initiatives need to be fostered in the field of life sciences, and whether we need new educational products in principle, with those of our colleagues who are also involved in this field,” said Daria Denisova.
An inside look: why medical professionals don’t do a lot of research
On the other hand, why are scientists and medical specialists themselves so little involved in this research, given that they’re the ones most immersed in this context? This was touched upon by Anton Barchuk, executive director at the Northwestern Federal District Association of Oncologists, research associate at Tampere University and N.N. Petrov Research Institute of Oncology.
The expert started by emphasizing the need to distinguish between the notions of life sciences and health sciences. Contrary to life sciences, which are for the most part understood as biology and related fields, health sciences focus on the subject of human health. Placed under the latter’s umbrella can be epidemiology, healthcare economics, biostatistics, all kinds of qualitative research in the field of sociology and other fields. Anton Barchuk also highlighted that today’s Russia experiences a significant lack of research, particularly in the disciplines traditionally pertaining to health sciences.
“While sociological research in this field has at least some representation in Russia, inter alia thanks to the colleagues from the European University, there’s very little modern epidemiological research being done, for instance,” noted the expert. “There are individual cases of specialists who are trying to do such work, but this hasn’t yet been formalized in any way. And I don’t know of any institution in Russia that would teach these disciplines – modern epidemiology and biostatistics – and help conduct relevant research. We have doctors, we have sociological research, but everything connected to quantitative research is rather limited. On the other hand, internationally we can see a gigantic amount of publications on epidemiological research in major medical journals. It transpires that Russia isn’t present on this map of the world as of yet.”
According to the executive director of the Northwestern Federal District Association of Oncologists, that was what led to the idea to discuss the need for developing educational programs in this field, and also in parallel to develop modern epidemiological research in the country. And these programs shouldn’t necessarily be implemented on the basis of medical universities, pointed out Anton Barchuk.
“It’s indisputable that medical professionals should be involved in this research, both qualitative and quantitative kinds. But for the most part, medical universities themselves don’t have all the scientific competencies needed for conducting this research. I interact with lots of doctors and see that they want to carry out research but lack the knowledge and opportunities for garnering and analyzing data, don’t have that good of an understanding of methodology, they simply haven’t been taught all these things. That’s why, for example, ITMO University and the European University, who have the opportunities and some of the necessary competencies, can make a contribution here.”
Existing educational initiatives
The participants have also highlighted that today in Russia there already is a number of educational projects aimed at developing communications in biotechnologies and the medical sphere. In 2020, the ITMO Master’s program in science communication will be expanded with a new specialization in the communications in biotechnologies and medicine: at the beginning of the second semester, the students will be able to choose a separate track that would allow them to work with databases in the field of medicine and healthcare, as well as understand the structure of medical organizations and the specifics of generating content in this field (you can read about it in more detail here).
An array of educational projects in this sphere is implemented by ITMO’s partner, the European University at St. Petersburg. As of now, the university is operating a continuing professional education program in the sociology and anthropology of medicine for specialists in the field of healthcare. And starting from this year, the university is also to launch a new Master’s program on social research in medicine.
“Our project grew from inside, from internal research interests of different groups at the European University: these are the specialists in the fields of sociology, anthropology, and also economics – the representatives of the latter are also interested in healthcare-oriented research. That’s why our interdisciplinary program, in this sense, became an evolutionary step, a logical continuation of our initiatives,” shared Ekaterina Borozdina, dean of the Department of Sociology and Philosophy at the European University at St. Petersburg. “But apart from the development of research interests, this is also about the creation of communities: as a result of many conferences that engaged representatives of various nonprofits and specialists in the medical field, we’ve got the feeling that we need an institutionalization platform. And launching such a program can serve as this platform for the development of dialog.”
That medical specialists are interested in new competencies was also expressed by Anna Temkina, endowed professor in the sociology of public health and gender, head of the Gender Studies program at the European University at St. Petersburg.
“Every time we conduct medical research using qualitative methods, we get surprised how much medical professionals are interested in our results: they gladly listen to us, invite us to conferences and come to us. Their bottom line is that we bring the issues to a higher level of abstraction, incorporate them into this systemic level and, according to a number of colleagues, ‘provide the specialists with a social toolset’,” noted the expert.
Projects for 2020
According to Daria Denisova, the meeting provided a great opportunity to engage representatives of different fields in the discussion of all of today’s initiatives for the creation of educational programs and research projects, understand the interest and demands set forth by companies and society, and unite the competencies for the development of joint projects in the field of life sciences and health sciences research.
“The meeting brought together specialists from a variety of fields, including those approach new initiatives with a certain level of criticism. This is absolutely normal, because the creation of new educational products is always a challenge that we must critically analyze, fully respond to, and understand what it would lead to going forward,” emphasized the head of the Center for Science Communication. “In 2020, we plan to organize collaborations and conduct joint research, including as part of the programs already existing at ITMO and the European University, and also to explore new educational formats – for example, short-term courses or modules. This is important for us as analytics in life sciences attracts interest from representatives of different fields.”
Another step of the cooperation will be organizing a joint seminar and school with the European University. And this spring, the Center for Science Communication will hold a workshop on data visualization in the field of life and health sciences at the Heureka center of Finnish science in Helsinki.
Apart from that, in 2020 the Center’s specialists and their partners will continue to explore the opportunities for the creation of a new English-language Master’s program in epidemiology at ITMO University in 2021, which would be aimed at training practice-oriented specialists conducting custom research for specific companies.