Professor Cyrus Cooper

“It is not the fittest of the species that survives; it is the one most adaptable to change.” So went the famous misquote attributed to one of my heroes Charles Darwin, but actually written by Leon Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University in 1963. Regardless of its origins, the emphasis on adaptability to a changing environment is an exemplary adage for the times we live in today. The  Faculty, the University, the Hospital Trust and the city, have demonstrated remarkable adaptive capacity over the last eight months, as evidenced by the array of thoroughly well-deserved successes in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list (personal congratulations, of course, to all of these). This is just the tip of an iceberg of effort undertaken by so many throughout our own institution and partner organisations.

At the MRC LEU, we have begun the process of reconfiguring as a national MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Centre, focusing on musculoskeletal disorders and the nutritional intervention studies during development, that have been established over the last two decades. When funding was confirmed for the Centre from 2021 until 2026, we had secured continuous intramural MRC support to the Faculty of Medicine at Southampton for 47 years, a remarkable achievement for a Russell group University of our size, and a Faculty of Medicine which only commenced life in 1970.

While work on our component programmes has been ongoing throughout the year, I was delighted by the submission of 12 COVID-19 Unit studies to the UKRI-MRC anthology of 175 such endeavours, in the audit of intramural MRC work published on the website a fortnight ago. Pride of place among these was involvement in the Southampton Salivary COVID-19 Testing programme, but the list includes a host of studies addressing COVID-19 impact among participants in several of our cohort and intervention studies including the Hertfordshire Cohort Study, Southampton Women’s Survey, HEAF, EACH-B, NAPA and WRAPPED. Congratulations to all of you who made these possible.

Another adaptation which has proved a rich seam for us has been the use of evidence to inform policy. Our unit-led research on primary and secondary fracture prevention was taken up by the International Osteoporosis Foundation, in a global policy initiative known as the Capture-the-Fracture Partnership. In drawing up an international policy framework for this programme, I came across a commentary published in Nature two years ago by my colleague at St Peters College, Oxford – Christl Donnelly; she outlined four critical principles in policy development from evidence – inclusivity; rigour; transparency; and accessibility. The article provided grounds for reflection, not least because her co-authors included Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance. While the four precepts discussed were clearly unarguable, I did wonder whether the political and social context in which policy had to be framed exerted a rather greater impact on the success or failure of the programme which resulted.

Which brings me to another hero of mine – the German philosopher Georg Hegel – who taught us that rational inference entails characterisation of thesis, antithesis and thereby synthesis (the Hegelian dialectic). As we look for policy solutions to the current pandemic, we would perhaps be wise to heed the lessons learnt in the generation of policy, as well as those enabling synthesis of a rational philosophical position.

Adapting to change at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit by Professor Cyrus Cooper

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