“As an engineer, you might design something that in technical terms works really well, but if a patient doesn’t like the look of it or it is too difficult to use, then it will never be a success.” – Prof Rhodri Williams, Swansea University
For many years Rhodri Williams was happy researching the rheology of industrial engineering fluids such as motor oils, and knowing that his impact was to improve the performance of these fluids and, in doing so, improve both the environment and also the profitability of the companies that made the oils.
But then a serendipitous meeting with a clinician changed his life and the direction of his research. He learnt, to his surprise, that the rheology of blood coagulation was not well understood. Driven by his natural curiosity and his love of solving problems, Williams decided to investigate the impact of rheology on blood clot structure. Today, thanks to support from the EPSRC, NHS and the Welsh Assembly Government, Williams and his clinical colleagues work at a dedicated clinical haemorheology laboratory at Morriston NHS Hospital in Swansea.
The experience has taught him a lot about engaging with the public. “As a physicist or engineer, it is so easy to go through your working life never having opportunities to tell the general public about your work,” says Williams, a professor at Swansea University’s College of Engineering. “My colleagues and I now regularly engage with a wide variety of end-users, including the general public, and the feedback we get is invaluable to our research.”
His clinical colleagues have taught him that the timing of public engagement activities is critical. “You must not speak to end users too early or you will raise hopes of a solution to their problem or a cure for their ailment,” says Williams. For example, while developing a respiratory aid, Williams and his industrial collaborators first performed rigorous scientific tests to validate that it worked. They then secured the intellectual property to ensure that the technology could be commercialised. Now, during the prototype development, they engage with user groups (including patients and their carers) who provide essential, and often brutally honest, feedback. “In our focus groups, we let patients, carers and clinicians handle kit and ask questions,” says Williams. “As an engineer, you might design something that works really well, but if a patient doesn’t like the look of it or it is too difficult to use, then it will never be a success.”
Swansea University is now seen as a world-leading centre for understanding the structure, initiation and growth of blood clots. The work by Williams and his colleagues has not only resulted in two spin off-companies, but has also attracted collaborative companies to Swansea and is having a clinical impact at two hospitals.
While Williams understands that not all engineering projects are destined to have a major impact on society, he feels a lot can be learned from his experience. “Everyone has a different idea of what impact means, partly because everyone has different motivations for working in academia,” says Williams. He believes that, in order to get maximum commercial impact from any idea, it needs to be protected at the appropriate stage. “In terms of engagement in health-related research I believe there is an argument for saying that researchers have a moral obligation to protect the knowledge they generate, otherwise their conversations with industry will be brief and the ultimate aim of commercialising the fruits of the research, in order to make it widely available to clinicians, may be thwarted,” says Williams. “In addition to the potential healthcare benefits, the UK tax payer could be said to have made an investment in our research. If this is not protected, how will they get their return?”