It is easy to see why ex-prime minister David Cameron described UK life sciences as, “truly a jewel in the crown of our economy,” writes Stephen Dorrell, long-standing MP and former health minister, in a new report gauging the impact of Brexit on the sector in the UK.
The sector, made up of medical biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical technology and the wider scientific base on which it depends, generates annual revenues of £60 billion, exports of £30 billion and employs 220,000 people.
It underpins the quality of UK healthcare, both because its presence ensures that scientific advances are immediately available to UK patients, and because the opportunity to work at the frontier of life science attracts some of the best clinicians and academic scientists in the world to work in the UK.
Seen in its wider context, it is also a cornerstone of the UK science sector, which is the second largest in the world after the US, and is the key to the global success of UK universities.
It is hard to overstate its importance both to our economic health and to our ability to maintain and develop the quality of life in Britain.
As the government prepares to launch its Brexit negotiations, we have heard much about the importance of the City of London and the financial services sector – and they do indeed represent a vital national interest.
However, the purpose of the report, (sponsored by the clinical research and healthcare information company QuintilesIMS and written by Public Policy Projects, a think tank headed by Dorrell), is to ensure that policy makers are equally focussed on the implications of Brexit for UK life sciences and that its interests – and therefore the interests of UK citizens as a whole – are fully understood and protected.
Why life sciences needs red tape
One of the key interests of the sector lies in the regulatory structures which surround it. The good news is that leaving the EU means that responsibility for these structures will become solely a UK responsibility, which should make it easier to challenge the undoubted tendency of all regulators to err on the side of risk aversion.
This has led some leaders of UK science to celebrate the prospect of Brexit and look forward to the opportunity to create a more liberal regulatory structure for life sciences outside the EU.
This prospect is undoubtedly attractive, and we shall need to develop to the full the opportunities which it creates. To do so we must understand quickly how the new regulatory structures will work and which requirements we propose to change.
That is important both to develop the argument that the UK is about to become more attractive as a location for life science development, and to understand how the new UK regime will relate to the regimes which apply elsewhere in the world, and in particular in the US, the rest of the EU and Japan.
A key conclusion of this report is that policy makers need to focus on our future relationship with these three blocs, which together account for over 90 per cent of world sales of new hi-tech medicines.
Future trading relationships with Brazil, Russia, India, China and Turkey (BRICT) are important to the wider interests of the UK, but their demand for medicines is focussed on primary care and generic manufacturers; they are not significant markets for the hi-tech, speciality patented medicines that are the lifeblood of innovation for the industry and which are pushing forward boundaries in cancer and other devastating diseases.
This conclusion underlines the importance of ensuring that UK life sciences remains at the heart of mainstream developments in these key markets.
Regulatory structures which encourage separation of the UK (3 per cent of global demand) from the rest of the EU (27 per cent of global demand) or the US (54 per cent of global demand) run the risk of isolating the UK sector from key markets and encouraging global pharma businesses to focus their research activities elsewhere.
Keep UK R&D at the heart of the EU
The report also draws out the importance of ensuring that Brexit does not undermine UK-based R&D activity. In 2015 the UK received scientific support to the value of €8.8 billion; ministers have made a welcome commitment to ensure that this level of funding is maintained in future but that is, in reality, not the real issue.
Maintained funding is obviously welcome, but the essential UK national interest is to ensure that the UK science continues to be at the heart of the wider European scientific community.
Quite apart from the importance of ensuring that UK regulatory structures are recognised in other key markets, it is also important to ensure that UK-based employers have access to the best and brightest research brains in the world.
The multi-lingual, multi-cultural academic and clinical communities of London, Oxford, Cambridge, and many other UK centres, bring not only cultural diversity to those communities but also scientific competitive advantage to the UK as a whole.
Policy makers must respect the electorate’s sensitivity to immigration policy, but they must also recognise that science, and science-based industry, is a global activity and that we face a simple choice: we either participate in full in that global scientific community or we prejudice a key British national interest.
This is an edited version of the introduction to the report, ‘Finding a cure: getting the best Brexit deal for Britain’s life sciences.’ The report is authored by Luke Tryl and published by Public Policy Projects with support and data inputs from QuintilesIMS.
Stephen Dorrell was a Conservative MP for 36 years, serving as Secretary of State for Health. He is currently chair of the NHS Confederation and Head of Public Policy Projects.