Archive for August, 2021

Scientists are polarising the public

Posted on: August 31st, 2021 by Tomas White

In response to the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, wrote:

“The IPCC report is clear: nothing short of transforming society will avert catastrophe… individuals, employers, institutions and international partners will need to work together to understand the trade-offs, agree compromises and seize opportunities.”

In other words, reaching Net Zero will require sacrifice. But, as governments have found time and again — on issues ranging from house building to adult social care — agreeing on the problem is the easy bit. Building support for a specific plan is the hard part. A Government fond of Cakeism and fearful of a Red Wall backlash has delayed publication of the Treasury’s report into the cost of achieving Net Zero, precisely because it fears the political cost of that sacrifice.

Last year, when government needed lockdown compliance, scientists like Witty, Van-Tam and Vallance were deployed to make the case for sacrifice. It worked. The government will be relying on their persuasive power again.

However, the results of the second wave of the MHP Mischief Polarisation Tracker — our study of UK public opinion, produced with Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab — suggest that scientists are losing their reputation as unbiased seekers of truth, weakening their ability to galvanise public opinion.

Between Wave 1 of the Tracker (conducted December 2020 / January 2021) and Wave 2 (June 2021), voters became more likely to say that scientists were a biased source of information, with right wing voters registering a particular increase in perceptions of bias. While scientists are still seen by both left and right as the least biased source of information, this was the biggest shift among the six categories we examined:

Worse, scientists are the second-most polarising source of information on our list. This means they are at risk of taking on totemic status in the UK’s culture war, with left wing voters adopting them as being on “their side” and right wing voters rejecting them in response.

In this scenario, scientists’ words will be treated as unquestionable truth by the left and deeply suspicious by the right. This is both antithetical to the spirit of scientific enquiry and unhelpful to the cause of building political consensus.

Why is this happening?

The first cause is the politicisation of the pandemic, which has morphed from a “practical” debate about flattening curves to a “values” driven debate about what kind of society we want to live in. Scientists have been at the forefront of the debate and politicians have sought to borrow their credibility — instead, they have drained it.

The second is the media prominence of scientist-activists (most notably ‘Independent Sage’) whose biases have come under increasing scrutiny (note, our study pre-dated ‘Madeley vs Michie’ and the broader controversy over Sage’s Communist influences). Oxford scientist Trish Greenhalgh recently blamed the media for ‘pitting scientists against each other’ and feeding polarisation, but she was also one of the architects of a public letter by scientists that called plans to unlock ‘a dangerous and unethical experiment’ by the government. This is precisely the kind of language that polarises opinion.

The third is growing concern about biases within the Academy. From proposed legislation to defend free speech on campus to high-profile political protests by academics themselves, 2021 has seen a rise in the number of stories which blur the lines between academia and politics. While a recent study by Kings College found university bias to be a minority concern, focus on the issue is growing.

And finally, attempts to shut down avenues of debate and scrutiny inevitably lead to a backlash. The initial censorship of the Lab Leak theory did great damage, suggesting collusion between media, government, tech and the scientific community. If you believe that one of those institutions is biased, then the transitive law applies to the other conspirators. You are all as bad as each other in the mind of the observer.

As our Tracker data shows, the scientific community still broadly enjoys the public trust, but this cannot be taken for granted. Scientists need to exercise caution and be careful not to stray too often over the line between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’. Most importantly, they should call out those who seek to use them as pawns in their political battles.

To win public support for action on Net Zero, politicians will need to rely more on science, but less on scientists.

In conversation with: Lionel Barber

Posted on: August 25th, 2021 by Tomas White

We were delighted to host Lionel Barber, former Financial Times Editor and author of the new book, The Powerful and the Damned. Exploring the stories behind fifteen years of global headlines, our event with Lionel is one of a series of MHP Mischief events with leading journalists, exploring both life inside the newsroom and today’s media environment, as well as the key issues facing business and communications leaders around the world.

Catch up on some of the highlights below:





Is genomics the key to pandemic recovery?

Posted on: August 17th, 2021 by Tomas White

From Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix (the structure of DNA molecule) to the subsequent establishment of the Human Genome Project which enabled us to read the complete genetic blueprint of a human being, the UK has a long heritage in genomics.

More recently genomics has revolutionised how patients are diagnosed and treated and, thanks to continued efforts and investment from both industry and government, methodologies over the years have been refined, driving down the cost to sequence a genome and making it more accessible for clinicians to use in everyday practice.

When the first draft of human genome was completed it had taken 13 years and over £2 billion to read the genetic code. Today, a genome can be sequenced in a few days and costs less than £1000.

But where the potential of genomics had previously only been realised by those at the cutting edge of the medical research, thanks to the pandemic it has now been thrust into the limelight for the wider public.

As policymakers look for efficient ways to recover NHS services and outline priorities for the future, there is a unique opportunity for genomics. Given the strong foundation of investment and expertise it would be remiss to not reflect on how genomics has supported us throughout the pandemic, and ensure that we embed genomics into planning for the future.

Throughout the pandemic

Without genomics, controlling the spread of COVID wouldn’t be possible. Rapid genome sequencing has enabled researchers to develop vaccines at pace, monitor outbreaks and map variants – all of which play a crucial in managing spread and impact of pandemic.

Monitoring outbreaks

Through tracking community transmissions, scientists have been able to identify similarities in viral sequences which would suggest the virus was transmitted from a similar source. This has allowed public health officials to identify outbreaks and tailor interventions for specific regions to combat spikes in infections – this information undoubtedly informed the tiered restrictions system in England.

This process has also been instrumental in monitoring transmission in hospitals and care homes, and has enabled the identification of internal outbreaks which would be putting patients or residents at risk of COVID infection, informing decisions to step-up measures to prevent infection including limiting staff movement.

Mapping variants

Because there have been so many infections with the virus – nearly 200,000,000 at the time of writing – the virus has had ample opportunity to mutate. Most changes have little impact on the properties of the virus, however some make the virus more severe, impact vaccine effectiveness or make it more transmissible.

Genomic surveillance teamed with international collaboration in identifying and mapping new variants will be crucial as governments look to return to normal and will inform the level of domestic restrictions as well as determining international travel protocols where concerning variants are prominent. The UK is leading the way, offering its expertise to countries with less-developed genomic capacity and expertise through the New Variant Assessment Platform. The Platform seeks to promote ‘health security across the world’ by ‘boost[ing] global capacity to understand coronavirus so we’re all better prepared for whatever lies ahead’.

Vaccine development

Effective vaccines have long been thought of as the holy grail which will lead us out of the pandemic. Genomics has helped scientists to understand the DNA sequence of the virus, enabling researchers to target specific characteristics of the virus. As we fast approach rolling out booster jabs for the vaccine, genomics will undeniably play a critical role in allowing us to understand vaccine efficacy on mutations of the virus.

Beyond the pandemic

For the new Health Secretary and new Chief Executive of the NHS, clearing the NHS backlog is sure to be the number one priority as they take on their new roles, and as we look beyond the pandemic genomics should be an important tool in how the health system recovers.

Clearing the backlog in cancer

The backlog for NHS services created by the pandemic needs no introduction, and in cancer around 16,000 people currently waiting more than 62 days for a diagnosis, of whom about 12 per cent are thought to have cancer.

Genomics can and does play a critical part in diagnosing cancer, because cancer is a disease which alters what once was ‘normal’ DNA. By analysing tumours and identifying the different changes in genes, researchers can develop treatments that target specific mutations, and doctors can prescribe treatment tailored to the specific cancer. This will be increasingly important as we look to clear the backlog in diagnosing cancer, with quicker diagnosis and more accurate prescribing meaning better outcomes for patients and reduced re-admissions to hospital.

Saving the system money

Following the pandemic it will be increasingly important to keep patients out of hospital and improve outcomes for patients. As seen in cancer, pharmacogenomics – the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs – enables clinicians to offer patients treatments tailored to their specific disease, accounting for mutations identified through genomic sequencing of the virus.

Pharmacogenomics can play a key role in saving the system money through personalised medicine. It is thought that drug interventions are effective in just 30-60% of patients because of the difference in how individuals react to the treatment. The right treatment first time saves the system through a reduction in failed treatments and in some cases the need for re-admission to hospital.

Conclusion

With the spotlight firmly on COVID recovery, we are at a critical junction for cancer services and the NHS as a whole. There has never been a better time for the UK to leverage its world leading expertise and reap the benefits from the substantial investment in capabilities and technologies to work with the health system to harness genomics and build in genomics capabilities to recovery plans.

As the genomics community continues to work at tremendous pace to tackle the virus with the tenacity shown in the pandemic, there is opportunity for policymakers to revisit government initiatives, such as the Genomics Strategy, to reflect the lessons from COVID to accelerate and embed the role that genomics plays in our health system.

Now is the time for the UK to cement it’s status as a global leader in genomics, whilst ensuring patients are offered the best possible predictive, preventative and personalised care.

A House of Cards? Is the rise in the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation here to stay?

Posted on: August 4th, 2021 by Tomas White

Last week, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and Ipsos Mori launched the UK Pharmaceutical Reputation Index, covering perceptions of the industry by the public, healthcare professionals and MPs between July 2020 and March 2021.

Following 18 months of the spotlight being shone on the pharmaceutical industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the results are unsurprising from a UK perspective.  Overall, the pandemic has led to increased public visibility of the sector in general, driven largely by coverage of a handful of companies.  Pharmaceutical companies generally are now thought of more favourably than either internet companies or banks, and General Public ‘trust’ is higher than that of banks, internet companies, automotive manufacturers or food and drink vendors.

Similarly, the evidence reveals that the pandemic response is challenging MP’s prior perceptions of the industry.  Call them fickle, but the achievements of pharmaceutical sector in the global COVID-19 response are viewed by MPs as benefitting the UK’s international reputation, which means they’re more positive about the sector as a result.  Meanwhile, most healthcare professionals see the pharmaceutical industry as saving and improving lives.  To cut a long story short – for anyone who doesn’t have time to pour over the detail – the role that individual companies have played (and continue to play) in fighting the pandemic has led to marked improvements on pretty much all metrics for the whole sector.

This evidence chimes with other surveys, industry barometers and corporate reputation assessments over the past year – most of which conclude a net positive improvement in pharmaceutical industry reputation, trust, and public perception because of the pandemic. This may well be a UK-specific phenomenon, with mixed media coverage in Europe related to the vaccine, and US surveys suggesting little shift in overall industry perception.

Over the past 18 months, certain individual pharmaceutical companies and by proxy the industry have become household names – and as people hear more about them, they think they know more about them.  At the same time, pharmaceutical companies have been able to demonstrate its value to the public in a different way – going beyond treatments to show the ability to respond to public need, work in partnership and deliver things ‘for the greater good’.  As a result, both trust and transparency scores have increased.  Despite this, across the audience types, it’s clear significant knowledge gaps remain – there is limited understanding about how R&D or access to medicine works, and still nobody is clear on medicines pricing.  All in all, because some pharmaceutical companies are in the public eye, more people feel positive about the sector, and assume it is both more trustworthy and more transparent than before, despite little change in familiarity with it, or understanding of what it does.

The problem with assumptions, of course, is that they can change.

So, what does this mean for how the pharmaceutical industry communicates? Firstly – and perhaps obviously, the industry can’t get complacent.  Although to some it feels like it is dragging, the pandemic won’t last forever, and so the net positive reputation impact caused by the pandemic is likely to fade.  At best, the pandemic has hammered home the precarious relationship between the public and the pharmaceutical sector – and shown how the actions of one company can affect the whole industry.

Actually, the nature of the coverage about pharmaceutical companies hasn’t really changed – it’s still mostly about their academic research partners when it’s good news, and the pharmaceutical company front and centre in bad news – but the public’s perception of the reporting has.  One of the reasons communicating with the public has been successful during the pandemic is because pharmaceutical companies have been telling them what they want to hear – communication has been relatable, relevant, and timely – and driven by purpose.

The other thing aiding pharmaceutical reputation is that helpfully, there’s another “bad guy” in town – COVID-19.  When the acute threat of COVID-19 diminishes, the media will search for other villains.  The causes we support, in The Networked Age, are those that allow us to oppose someone.  The sector needs to think about how to frame their communications in relationship to global health challenges, and make sure they continue to be positioned as collaborating for the greater good.  After all, COVID is just one of many “bad guys” the industry helps to fight day-in-day-out.

Since we first launched our Networked Age model in 2018, MHP Mischief has been studying the rise of tribalism as a force that shapes the way people relate to the world and each other, launching our Purpose Pathfinder earlier this year.  Purpose, powerfully articulated, can create a competitive advantage – especially as society becomes more polarised, something which has been demonstrated wholeheartedly throughout the pandemic.  Pharmaceutical sector communications succeeded during the pandemic because it was based on community – focused on togetherness, fairness and shared interests and experiences.  As we move forward, the sector needs to make sure they know their audience, and designs campaigns and narratives which resonate.

So what about engaging with politicians? For individual companies involved directly in vaccine production and COVID-19 response, there has been unprecedented access to Prime Ministers, Health Ministers and other government stakeholders, and the speed of decision-making and collaboration between certain companies and governments has increased dramatically.

The challenge now is making that collaboration work for everyone, considering some of the challenging conversations likely to be coming down the track.  The pharmaceutical industry’s profits have been increasing just as governments have had to increase spending to support the pandemic response.  Undoubtedly government spending cuts will follow, including on healthcare, as part of post-pandemic recovery plans – and with them they will bring renewed scrutiny on medicines prices and access.  Collaboration, and a willingness to innovate, from both sides, could open doors to conversations that historically haven’t got off the ground – like value-based or indication-based pricing.  However, much as the net positive benefit from the actions of a few companies has been enjoyed by the sector, any negative impact as a result of challenging pricing conversations will also have a sector-wider impact.  The industry could do worse than agreeing together what its position is, so that future collaboration with the Government is as smooth as it can be.

There is also some interesting data lurking in the Index about who or what politicians listen to: universities and medical research charities are viewed more favourably than the NHS by MPs.  This is an interesting challenge for the way pharmaceutical companies engage with policymakers.  Historically, effort is exerted to demonstrate the sector as a valuable partner to the NHS.  Perhaps they should consider demonstrating themselves as a valuable partner to science moving forward.

The NHS, the Government and the public will inevitably change their minds once the immediate focus on COVID-19 is over, and the media spotlight fades.  As challenges other than the pandemic come to the fore – including economic downturn, growing population burdens and the climate crisis, the pharmaceutical industry needs to work out what role they want to play in those conversations, and how they can demonstrate they’re working for good.

Fintech funding: Managing a reputation for growth

Posted on: August 3rd, 2021 by Tomas White

With Revolut, the digital banking scale-up, becoming the UK’s most valuable private tech company (valued at $33bn) and money transfer challenger Wise valued at almost £9bn in a landmark direct listing, all eyes are on London as it strives to maintain its position as a major global hub for digital financial services post-Brexit.

This doesn’t seem in doubt at present. British fintech firms continue to attract huge amounts of international investment and London remains a key destination for fintech fundraisings, with the city ranked second in the world behind San Francisco and slightly ahead of New York. Indeed, fintechs  secured $5.7bn worth of venture capital investments in the first half of 2021 alone, easily outstripping the $4.3bn secured across the whole of 2020.

But with some fintechs now valued higher than traditional banks – a headline the media in particular has seized upon – some commentators have started to question whether such eye-watering valuations are warranted, particularly given that many high-growth disrupters are still failing to break even.

With rock bottom interest rates and Quantitative Easing continuing to inflate asset prices, investors seem willing to pay a premium for growth, but with many business models remaining untested over the long-term and economic conditions anything but certain, critics argue we could be in a fintech bubble.

If Revolut’s recent funding round is a barometer of wider investor sentiment, it seems unlikely that such fears will deter future interest in the sector at least in the short to mid-term.

A fundamental shift to fintech?

The valuations of fintechs do not simply reflect the wider funding environment – they reflect the companies themselves, the real world problems they solve – and the growth potential for the sector as consumer behaviour changes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably been a key factor in the fintech boom in the last 18 months, turbocharging digital adoption by consumers and businesses whilst also impacting their financial needs. Simultaneously, innovation in service industries has reset expectations with customers expecting a user experience from their financial provider equivalent to that seen across other areas of their lives.

The communications challenge: delivering on potential

How then can high-growth disruptors seize this unprecedented opportunity to transform the sector and deliver on their valuation potential?

From a communications perspective, it presents an interesting challenge. In the quest for market share, businesses must simultaneously create brand buzz whilst differentiating themselves from both traditional players and an ever expanding peer group of new entrants.

But rapid growth through disrupting the status quo inevitably draws scrutiny from regulators, politicians and commentators. Against this backdrop, businesses must be able to tell a coherent story to multiple stakeholders, positioning themselves as a responsible innovator committed to solving a new set of challenges for their clients. Fintechs can earn trust with these audiences by explaining their value proposition through the lens of both the customer and wider society, and by explaining the vision and values that drive them.

Combining a compelling brand, with a grown-up approach to stakeholder management and an investment case that captures the imagination of investors is no mean feat, particularly at a time when many businesses are building their in-house capabilities and looking to disrupt the market as quickly and as powerfully as possible.

For the many business that have recently secured investment, effective reputation management is a cornerstone of building and protecting their valuation at a time when the pressure to deliver on their much vaunted potential is greater than ever.