FUTURE MEDICINE congress

Speech by Dr. Georg Schütte ,State Secretary at the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, on the occasion of the congress in Berlin

Mr Turner,
Professor Lohse,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

My current bedtime reading is a book called “Nächste Ausfahrt Zukunft – Geschichten aus einer Welt im Wandel” which translates as “Next Exit Future. Stories from a Changing World”. It was published about four weeks ago and has already leapt into the German bestseller lists. It was written by the science writer Ranga Yogeshwar, who is a very well-known face on German television. In his book, Yogeshwar describes in a vivid and entertaining way how the world is undergoing a transformation due to the digital revolution, advances in genetic engineering and the development of artificial intelligence. For him this is an epochal shift that compares to the start of the Renaissance which marked the end of the Middle Ages and ushered in the age of Modernity.

If we accept this premise, then we can't be surprised if many people, whether in Germany, other European countries or the USA are fearful: Fearful about losing that which is familiar and seemingly safe, fearful about no longer being able to understand complex innovations and new technologies, about being overwhelmed by them, about not having any stake in them and ultimately being left behind and missing out: missing out on prosperity, missing out on being part of modern life and even missing out on medical advances. I am convinced that it is this fear which is driving a general scepticism about technology and even a deliberate hostility towards science, and which can result in people being receptive to simple messages and invented ‘facts’.

All of us in this room know that society will continue to need medical progress in the future. This is particularly so in view of the major trends like demographic change, globalization and climate change. These changes will influence how we live for a long time to come. That is why it is now more important than ever that we do all we can to ensure that society sees science, progress and innovation as an opportunity for a healthy, liveable future. Ranga Yogeshwar does this by taking his readers together with their fears and concerns on a journey that is varied and at times disconcerting but always fascinating, to places where new things emerge. The organizers of this year’s Berlin Science Week want it to provide a festival of science to arouse people's interest in innovation and the future. In two days' time the Falling Walls Conference will not only be marking the fall of the Berlin Wall 28 years ago but will also serve to discuss how science can pull down walls in our heads and unite people across borders. And here today, you will be discussing how current research findings can serve as building blocks for a healthy future.

I. Creating new structures and cooperation formats

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

I am delighted that you have taken up the joint invitation from the Tagesspiegel newspaper and the Berlin Institute of Health and are taking part in this unusual format for exchange and interaction – unusual at least for scientists. As you know, pioneering ideas and original solutions arise when we think “outside the box” and our thoughts enter completely new spaces. In these spaces we find people entering into conversation with one another who come from very different personal, professional and cultural backgrounds.

It is the duty of research policy to create such spaces and structures and formats in which scientists and experts from the most diverse disciplines can undertake joint research and address specific problems. But what we need is not just excellent science but also the excellent translation of research results into health care. Patients can only benefit from research if innovations actually enter into use. This is why health research also needs the spaces and possibilities for continual and sustained dialogue between science and society. Above all, this means the involvement of patients and health care representatives. They know where the needs are greatest for innovation in practice and what patients hope that research can achieve. But is also means the involvement of numerous health companies. They are in a position to develop scientific results into products and to bring these innovations to market. And of course the media has a role to play as well. It is expected to explain science and the transformation of society to the public.

We have created one of the structures that are needed with the Berlin Institute of Health. The core idea of the BIH is to bring together basic research and medical practice while providing enough space for the transfer of research and a continual dialogue with society. One of the scientific focuses of the Berlin Institute of Health is personalized medicine, which will have a decisive influence on the health care of the future. The BIH takes a systems-medicine approach which focuses on mechanisms across multiple diseases rather than on individual syndromes. We have also built up similar structures to the BIH with the German Centres for Health Research which are spread across the whole of Germany. The German Centres for Health Research provide excellent research results in close cooperation with their partner organizations, and these results are expected to be quickly transferred into practical use with the help of strong translation structures. The fact that the German Council of Science and Humanities (the Wissenschaftsrat) gave an assessment this year that the structures of the German Centres for Health Research are pioneering for the future makes me confident that the success of translational research in Germany will continue in the coming years.

When new research results give rise to innovative products, these can usually only be marketed by companies. That is why successful translation of research into practice requires close collaboration between academic research and the health industry. Germany still has some catching up to do here. The Federal Research Ministry will therefore create new formats for collaboration where researchers and experts from companies and the regulatory authorities can work together right from the start of an innovation process, for example for the development of new drug agents.

II. Continuing international cooperation in a consistent way

Undertaking joint research and developing innovative solutions is, of course, not restricted to scientists in one country. After all, the major societal challenges of our time require international cooperation. Epidemics, cancer, AIDS, antibiotic resistance – all these health problems, and more besides, have attained a global scale. Therefore they can only be solved through joint global efforts. In this context, we are assuming responsibility by expanding research on global health in close cooperation with our partners. One example of this is the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI for short, which the Federal Government began supporting last year. CEPI is a public-private partnership of national governments and various institutions and foundations, which are working to develop vaccines and other measures to stop the spread of future epidemics.

And at the G20 summit in July of this year, we agreed with our partner countries that the fight against increasing antimicrobial resistance can only be waged jointly at an international level. Chancellor Merkel proposed the establishment of a G20 platform for cooperation in the field of antimicrobial resistance and for research and development of new antibiotics, and this scheme is currently undergoing implementation. A further example of our support is our involvement in the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership (GARDP) set up by the World Health Organization and other partners. The Federal Government and other international donors raised 56 million euros for research and development here in Berlin this September.

III. Introduction of digital health innovations

Ladies and Gentlemen,

When we talk of global challenges we also need to talk about the use of digital technology in health care. Digitization offers huge opportunities for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. This applies for example to the integration of molecular biological parameters or earlier clinical treatment results in current recommendations for prevention and treatment of individual patients. It is only through digitization that personalized medicine can become reality.

We want to continue introducing digital technology into the German health system. For me it is important from the very beginning to consider the scientific potential of the data that is collected. This is why we have sought to work closely with health policy-makers on the issue of digital technology use. In this way we have been able to ensure that the E-Health Act contains a clause permitting the use of health care data for research purposes. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is providing around 120 million euros over the next four years for its Medical Informatics Initiative. Under the initiative we intend to establish “data integration centres” at German university hospitals which demonstrate how data, information and knowledge from patient care and clinical and biomedical research can be linked together. Furthermore, we are promoting the development of patient records which are research-compatible. In order to speed up the needs-oriented development and implementation of digital innovations in Germany we will launch a “Digital Health” dialogue platform together with the Federal Health Ministry next year. Scientists, companies, health care stakeholders and civil society will be able to use this platform to jointly develop strategies to drive the digital transformation of the health system. We are doing all these things because we are convinced that Big Data in medicine will be very useful in prevention and treatment and so that patients can reap the direct benefits of the digital transformation.

IV. Looking ahead

In his book, Ranga Yogeshwar writes that “Big Data in the 21st century is what steam was in the 18th century and electricity was in the 19th century, namely a fundamental revolution”. Today, looking back two or three hundred years to these upheavals, we smile to ourselves when we think that people were knocked almost sideways with anxiety and insecurity about the arrival of the railways, steamships and electric light.

It is important therefore that we address people’s ideas of the future so that science will continue to enjoy broad acceptance among the population. These ideas show us what people want from science. But they also show us their concerns about science, and it is vital that we take these seriously. This highlights the importance of good science communication. And this is why I am so glad that a book about innovation like Mr Yogeshwar’s “Next Exit Future” has made it to the top of the bestseller lists in such a short space of time. It is clear that people are ready to address that which is new, to accept change and maybe even to actively participate in shaping it. We must meet them at the point of reality of their lives and then take them on a fascinating scientific journey. We can include them, interview them, conduct research with them, and involve them in planning or carrying out research projects. We in the Federal Research Ministry were positively overwhelmed by the response to a call for Citizen Science Projects this year. Over 300 projects were proposed, and selected projects are now being funded. For example, people with hearing impairments and others are participating in the planning of innovative hearing aids. In another project, patients with cluster headaches are being called upon to document their pain attacks on a web platform. These and many other examples show that people can be enthusiastic about research or even inspired to take part.

I urge you too not to lose your enthusiasm for the future, to stay curious about nature, and not to stop asking questions and striving jointly to find answers. In this spirit, I wish you an exciting event and a stimulating discussion, and hope that you will take an important step in the future of medicine today.