News: 3rd James Best Distinguished Lecture: “Improving Lives Through Science” by Professor Dame Sally Davies


By Kimberley Wang, Writer

LKCMedicine had the honour of hosting the eminent Professor Dame Sally Claire Davies, with the highlight being her speaking engagement at the 3rd James Best Distinguished Lecture on 21 February which she delivered to an audience of about 300 from local and international universities and healthcare institutions. 

Speaking from the Ong Tiong Tat and Irene Tan Liang Kheng Auditorium at LKCMedicine’s Novena campus, Dame Sally, who is the 40th Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the first woman to hold the post, delivered a lecture titled “Improving Lives Through Science”, during which she shared very generously her vast experience in medicine, health research and policy. 

Right off the bat, she declared, “Improving health needs many forms of Science, not just medical science, or clinical research. Health research also involves the economic and social sciences, and behavioural sciences.” 

For 45 minutes, she held the audience captive – online and onsite – with her inimitable speaking style, giving key insights in how health research can advance prevention and treatment of diseases and improve care for people around the world.    

Drawing on her experience in transforming health research in the UK, first as the founder of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), and then as Chief Health Scientist in the UK government, she stressed many times in her presentation the critical role of clinical research on a nation’s health. Her strategy is “Best research for best health,” or “To improve the health and wealth of the nation through research.”

To do that, she decided that she needed to create a health research system in which the UK’s National Health Service (NHS): 

• supports outstanding individuals
• working in world-class facilities 
• conducting leading-edge research
• focused on the needs of patients and the public

She also shared her experience in facing obstacles and roadblocks, for instance, the lack of interest in applied and policy research. “Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.”

Before her current appointment, Dame Sally was the Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK Government from 2011 to 2019. She is a leading figure in global health, having served as a member of the World Health Organization Executive Board from 2014 – 2016. She was appointed as the UK Government’s Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance in 2019 and has been highlighting the increasing threat of antimicrobial resistance globally. In November 2020, she was announced as a member of the new UN Global Leaders Group on antimicrobial resistance serving alongside Heads of State, Ministers and prominent figures from around the world to advocate for action.

To date, the NIHR has had an enormous impact on the clinical research landscape in the UK and beyond, and other countries, including Singapore, have emulated this model. Singapore is one of many countries who are benefiting from her immense expertise. In the 2022 Singapore National Day Awards, she received the Public Service Medal through the Prime Minister’s Office.

“I stand here to clearly state the importance of research and evidence from many fields, and learn why Academic Hospitals, platform technologies and partnerships, collaboration are key to delivering impact.”

The James Best Distinguished Lecture series was launched in 2022 as part of the LKCMedicine Distinguished Visitors Programme. The programme runs for five years and is funded by a local donor who wishes to remain anonymous. The donor was present at this lecture.

Opening the event was Professor Joseph Sung, Dean of LKCMedicine and NTU’s Senior Vice-President for Health & Life Sciences. In his opening speech, Prof Sung said, “Her insights are important to us as academic medicine and community-based care are key components of Singapore’s healthcare priorities and has deep impact on the healthcare ecosystem in Singapore.” Dame Sally’s lecture was all the more poignant given that LKCMedicine and its primary healthcare partner, the National Healthcare Group (NHG), are crystallising a shared vision to form an Academic Health System and to develop community-based care as part of Singapore’s Healthier SG programme led by the Ministry of Health.

Prof Sung added that it is a privilege to have Dame Sally deliver her lecture. “Dame Sally has been involved in this work, having being in the centre of reimagining healthcare in the UK for many years. She was in many ways ahead of the curve.” 

Professor James Best, former Dean of LKCMedicine, who inspired the lecture series, delivered the citation for Dame Sally. “It is indeed an honour to hear her insights and wisdom on navigating the way forward in medical research… I’ve had the honour of meeting and interacting with her including in Australia and she has always impressed and inspired those she met.”

Among the many highlights of her lecture was her rationale for coupling research funding to the attainment of the Athena SWAN Silver Award. This boosted women in science participation. 

She said, “Creating the NIHR was an act of leadership in itself. But I also wanted to use the system to improve health leadership – as a tool.” The gender imbalance caught her attention and needed correction, given women form some 50% of the talent pool. “After much deliberation I decided to utilise Athena SWAN to achieve this.”  

In 2011, the UK’s Department of Health decided to link NIHR Biomedical Research Centre and Unit funding to institutions achieving an Athena SWAN silver award – no NHS/University partnership can expect to be shortlisted if it has not achieved at least a Silver Award of the Athena Swan Charter for Women in Science. When there was a marked increase in membership from medical and dental schools, the Department of Health then extended this to all major NIHR research infrastructure schemes. 

The lecture was followed by a question-and-answer session chaired by LKCMedicine Assistant Dean for External Relations, Associate Professor Yusuf Ali. He started the session with a personal anecdote, “In these two days, I found her to be always asking questions. From her questions (one about the naming of Singapore’s Newton Circus), I’ve learnt something new!” Dame Sally said she has never stopped asking questions, and that probably is at the core of all her endeavours.  

The Q&A session saw many interesting questions fielded – from one wanting to know what ‘questions’ she asked of policy makers she met during her packed two days in Singapore, to tackling ignorance about what women are capable of, and her reaction to people who say No. To which she quipped, “I don’t accept No as an answer.”  

The James Best Distinguished Lecture features eminent professors who are global leaders in their respective fields. Through this platform, LKCMedicine aims to play a vital role in bringing together thought leaders and industry experts to address thought-provoking issues in medicine, with the perspective of fostering dialogue and advancing discourse in the transformation of medicine, medical education, and research.