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Cancer research collaborations in the era of COVID-19: force majeure, home working and supporting the NHS


Our Director of Enterprise Dr Angela Kukula gives an update on our response to COVID-19, and discusses how it is affecting our partnerships and collaborations.

Posted on 23 April, 2020 by Angela Kukula
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Image: Woman working from home. Credit: Unsplash

Here at The Institute of Cancer Research, we have had to move rapidly to adapt to working in the era of the new coronavirus through making very substantial changes to our working practices. 

Like everyone else, we are implementing the Government advice to work from home where possible – the welfare of our staff and students being paramount.

Our cancer research

Much of our research, particularly our wet lab experimental work, cannot be carried out remotely. So we have wound up all non-essential work while maintaining our future research capability, and preserving samples, cell lines and other resources.

However, there is still a substantial proportion of our work, notably our world-leading computational research, which will continue as normal off site. We are also continuing with some critical lab studies such as long-running animal studies, and those involving critical clinical trial samples.

We are proud that some of our scientists have been able to get involved in national efforts to find better ways to treat and prevent COVID-19. One ICR lab is aiming to develop antibodies against the SARS-CoV2 coronavirus, our ICR-developed CanSAR database is being repurposed to help identify COVID-19 treatments, and several of our experts in genomics are working with the Francis Crick Institute on ways to expand testing capacity.

We’re especially proud too that many of our clinical academics have already moved to the NHS frontline.

Force majeure

Here in the Enterprise Unit, which oversees our industry collaborations, we have now moved to home working. We are aware that the steps the ICR has taken to follow Government guidance, support international COVID-19 research efforts and support the NHS will have a knock-on effect to some of our existing and planned collaborations and we are contacting collaborators individually to make appropriate changes to our agreements.

A lot has been written about the force majeure clause in recent weeks. This clause, often buried away in contracts, provides for disruptions in fulfilling contractual obligations caused by a major external event.

Hardly ever used – or indeed given much scrutiny by negotiating parties – these trying times have led to an unprecedented focus on what constitutes a force majeure and in what circumstances it can be used.

While in some cases activating these clauses is the right thing to do, we have found that in many cases they are not suitable for the situation we currently find ourselves in and we are instead having to negotiate bespoke contract amendments.

We are therefore urging our partners and collaborators to contact the Enterprise Unit with any queries so that we can resolve them in the most appropriate way. We are ensuring we are in a position to quickly restart the full range of our research activities as soon as we are able to do so.

Big questions

As well as dealing with the immediate consequences of having to pause our wet lab research, we are also facing other big questions. How do we adapt to home working as a knowledge exchange office?

And how will physical distancing – however long it lasts – affect more broadly an industry that has always worked on the basis that there is no effective substitute for face-to-face contact?

As for the first question, fortunately we were well equipped in the Enterprise Unit for home work. Many of our staff already spent some time working from home on a regular basis, and our phone system calls through to mobiles at home.

That having been said, adapting to the scale of home working has still been a challenge and our colleagues in digital services have been nothing short of heroic in making sure that we are all able to connect and work effectively.

We are using conference calling for external and internal meetings, which so far is working well. They don’t quite replace face-to-face meetings, but we are making it work.

And in some ways they are improving our connections, since they have equalised the distance between different collaborators – we are now all exactly one internet away from each other! A meeting with someone in the US or China is now just as easy as a meeting with someone in London. 

We have also started a ‘work from home buddy’ daily rota system that keeps members of the team in touch with other and is reducing the sense of isolation.

We can all have a social conversation that goes someway to replacing the ‘water-cooler’ chat. And I for one feel I now know some of my colleagues better than when I zoomed past them in person – too busy to chat.

But we of course continue to think of friends and colleagues who can’t reduce physical interaction, including those being redeployed to help with the NHS.

We're one of the leading higher education institutions in the world at collaborating with industry. Our aim is to develop our research discoveries into new treatments, diagnostics or supporting technologies for cancer. 

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Networking and events

What this means for knowledge exchange in the medium term is less clear – particularly for conferences, training and events. The cancellation of major knowledge exchange conferences including AUTM and PraxisAuril has meant we are missing opportunities to network with others, share best practice and to catch up with colleagues.

Cancellation will also clearly have a major effect on the finances of organisations like PraxisAuril and AUTM, which could have a knock-on effect on future activities.

While events were still going ahead, we saw some awkwardness around avoiding shaking hands, with the advent of elbow bumping. Maybe in future we should adopt the Japanese practice of bowing? And what about exchanging business cards?

A few people have the capacity to exchange virtual business cards via contactless phone transfer, but the rest of us have had to become better at listening to and remembering names – which is no bad thing.

We are now seeing more and more networking events move online. For smaller gatherings this seems to work quite well; I have been involved in a few of these smaller networking gatherings now and have found myself making connections that I might never otherwise have made. I have also been pleased to see that some of the AUTM sessions were made available online, which has allowed some learning to be shared. 

We have seen larger events such as BioEurope Spring move to an entirely digital format. It will be interesting to see whether that could become a model for some future conferences.

This would certainly reduce the environmental impact of travel. I am less convinced, however, that these large events work well in a digital format – at least until someone comes up with an online platform that replicates the experience of ‘working the room’.

We have also, for the moment, postponed our own programme of Partnering to Defeat Cancer events, through which we introduce our work to potential collaborators. 

The reduction of social contact and restrictions on work practices may temporarily dampen industry appetite to take on new collaborations, and we may even see some of our SME collaborators disappear. We will need to continue to work hard to maintain our industry interactions.

The future

Of course any research related to coronavirus is an exception to the current rule. This needs to go on, and partners will need to work together efficiently to translate research with minimum contract discussion. I am sure those involved in such transfers will have lessons they can share about streamlining contractual discussions once the crisis is over.

We all need to maintain our connections during this time so that we are ready to move forward again when restrictions are lifted. And we may need to look for some silver linings in these unprecedented and challenging times.

For example, getting used to home working may mean that we look at flexible working patterns differently in future, which could greatly improve diversity in our sector.

It is often said that technology transfer is a contact sport – and now we are all having to work out how to do it ‘non-contact’.

We need to make sure that in our eagerness to get back to normal we don’t just go back to business as usual when restrictions are lifted, but instead try to learn lessons for the future in what we are going through now. We have a chance to do our business better.


Angela Kukula Enterprise Unit coronavirus
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