Supporting sustainable research - a blog by Sarah Grimshaw, Chair of the HRA staff Green Team

Last updated on 28 Jun 2023

Sarah Grimshaw, Chair of our staff Green Team, blogs about attending two recent events on how to support green research and opportunities to make a difference.

Climate change is happening. We’re all aware of it, we know it’s here, we know that things will likely get worse before they get better. It will have a greater impact on some communities than others across the world, and even within the UK. We already know, for example, that exposure to extreme temperatures is worse for the very young and the elderly. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 13 million deaths per year due to avoidable environmental causes, including climate change. We all have a responsibility to change our behaviours to ensure that climate change does not negatively impact us as much as it could. So where does research come in this?

As Chair of the HRA’s Green Team, I attended two events earlier this year. The first, in March, was the Academy of Medical Science’s (AMS) workshop on enabling greener clinical research; the second, in May, was the Royal Society’s event on sustainability in research and innovation. Both highlighted the challenges and the opportunities we have to make a difference – and that this is happening already.

At both events, it was fantastic to see the passion that people from different roles and organisations have to change their practices and work together in a greener way. There were great examples of small changes which have made a big impact in some organisations; for example, the University of Edinburgh has shown that many tissue samples can be stored at -70°C instead of -80°C, reducing the amount of energy used by 25-30% per ultra-low temperature freezer.

But small changes will only get us so far. We need to make bigger, wholesale changes to the way we work to reap the benefits. Organisations are now starting to develop and implement sustainability strategies to embed greener practices in everything they do. As part of their wider environmental strategy, AstraZeneca is looking into how they can reduce the impact of their drugs from initial development to their eventual use and disposal. It takes thousands of products to be tested before you get one that will eventually be sold as a drug, so this is a really significant strategy that I’m sure other pharmaceutical companies will be watching and perhaps even emulating.

At the HRA we’re aware that we need to do better to help you and promote environmentally sustainable research and we’re committed to doing this as part of our environmental sustainability strategy.

Hearing from patient representatives really brought home to me that although at the HRA we haven’t yet begun to explicitly promote greener ways to do research, we already have some fantastic resources to help researchers. Involving patients and the public, for example, leads to more meaningful research outcomes for the people it’s meant to benefit. It can also lead to a change in how you design your research to be more acceptable for participants, such as by reducing the number of study visits, or thinking about whether you really do need all those tests to be done.

Speaking of designing your trial, we’ve also published guidance on setting up interventional research in the NHS. You can use this to think about different ways you can run your trial. Could you use a hub and spoke arrangement, so that participants can travel to sites closer to them for some study activities? This could reduce the impact of participant travel on the environment, whilst also making it easier for people to participate.

We all have a responsibility to change our behaviours to ensure that climate change does not negatively impact us as much as it could. The AMS and Royal Society events both highlighted how much has been achieved through individual endeavours, but that we need to start joining up our individual activities to have a greater impact. They did leave me with hope, however, that we want to work together to make a real difference – and that we will. Challenge accepted. Let’s get to work.

Sarah Grimshaw

Sarah Grimshaw, Chair of the HRA staff Green Team

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