Hidden success of medical research needs celebrating

The Medical Research Council's IT director explains the importance of new technology

The Medical Research Council's IT director explains the importance of new technology

Investment and strategy in the health service is high on the political agenda and, as IT director at the Medical Research Council (MRC), Stuart Aitken is one of the key players.

As an IT leader looking after the MRC's corporate IT infrastructure, what are your biggest challenges?

Perhaps the greatest challenge relates to the size and complexity of the information and knowledge we hold and how it relates to that held by others.

How do we organise the information? How do we [assess] its relevance? How can we ensure we obtain the most useful information from outside sources efficiently?

The Internet has created a world of information overload. As a research organisation, we need to find ways to handle it effectively.

The new imperative for organisations is access to the right information at the right time. I think the shortage of reliable data has overtaken shortage of time.

Technology will be key and we are determined to embrace it successfully.

Do you believe that government departments are serious about new technology or are they just talking in soundbites?

I cannot speak for other government departments, but I know many heads of IT. Without doubt, these people are as committed to the appropriate new technology as their peers in the private sector.

We in the MRC see great potential in new technology to support our research. That is why we are developing initiatives that simplify the work of applicants and their administrators.

This ultimately speeds up the funding process which is cumbersome and slow.

We read a lot about public sector "failures". At a recent conference, no delegate could name a single public sector IT project success. Clearly, they are out there. Are these failures reality or media hype?

The public sector is an easy target. We are very much in the public eye investing public money. When money is associated with a failure, it becomes an issue of who is to blame and how it got that far. We do not hear much about failures in the private sector, but I suspect they are just as prevalent and spectacular.

What would you do to remedy the situation?

We rarely read about the successes in public sector IT and I would love to see more publicity.

It is up to IT directors to be proud of what they do. We do not seem concerned about celebrating or giving credit when we get things right. We get things correct far more often than we get things wrong.

It is a pity we do not talk about success because just pointing out failure gives the impression public sector IT cannot handle IT projects. Let me tell you, it can.

You seem very passionate about this

I am. The public sector has many hard-working people and the standard of IT leaders is high. It is just depressing that we read about so many failures.

Is technology at the heart of MRC research? What role does the Internet play?

Almost every sphere of biomedical research is dependent on technology and that is growing daily. The Internet plays a pivotal role, not only as a communication medium but as a vehicle on which research can be carried out.

Super Janet 4, the academic network, will connect universities and research units at 2.5 gigabits per second and will offer unlimited potential to researchers to experiment with what was not possible a few years ago.

The journey to improve human health will be made quicker and easier by technological advances.

David Taylor's Inside Track, a provocative insight into the world of IT in business, is published by Butterworth Heinemann. Tel: 01865-88180

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