14 Jun 2016   |   News

MPs call for contingency plan to protect UK life sciences in event of Brexit

Given the “cautionary tale” of how the Swiss freedom of movement referendum led to immediate cuts in EU R&D grants, the UK government should be ready to step in with national funding, says science committee

Urgent contingency plans would have to be drawn up to protect the UK life sciences sector in the event of a vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum, according to the House of Commons Science and Technology committee.

With the UK a substantial beneficiary of EU science programmes there is a need to protect R&D from cuts in grant funding in the event of Brexit. The government should conduct a risk analysis, and with an eye on what happened when Switzerland was barred from Horizon 2020, be ready to step in.

“The Swiss experience in particular should be a cautionary tale,” said Nicola Blackwood MP, chair of the committee. 

“When the Swiss voted to curtail free movement of people, the EU revoked access to science funding and collaboration, undermining the country’s science sector. Following lengthy negotiations Switzerland was permitted re-entry to Horizon 2020 but on much more restrictive terms,” Blackwood said.

With less than 10 days until the vote, MPs say the government must sketch out an urgent back up plan – to be deployed in the event of a win for the out campaign.

“We urge the government to conduct a risk analysis of the science and innovation funding and collaboration scenarios in the event of Brexit — and put in place immediate contingency plans to protect our science and innovation sector from any adverse consequences and to consolidate any benefits,” the committee says.

The report, by a cross-party group of MPs, did not come down on either side in the debate, noting that there are both benefits and costs to the UK science sector from EU membership, but it reflected the pro-EU views of the vast majority of people who gave evidence to the inquiry.

The UK life sciences sector and the British science establishment have declared themselves firmly in favour of remaining in the EU. While those interviewed by the committee during the inquiry were invited to express reservations about the effects of EU regulations on the sector, the tenor of the evidence was positive.

Steve Bates, chief executive of the Bioindustry Association, told the committee that if the UK does leave the EU, many life science researchers and companies, “Might seek to have many of the EU regulations either replicated or continue to be applied by the UK.” 

The committee’s conclusion is that, “The EU life science regulatory regime may well be more costly for researchers and businesses than individual national systems, but it does at least provide the potential to access a proportionately greater EU-wide market.”

The UK life sciences sector employs more than 222,000 and has a turnover of £60 billion. It spends £4 billion on R&D, and also attracts high levels of inward investment.

Over half of the UK’s £21 billion annual pharmaceutical exports go to the EU. The UK also is a net receiver of EU research funding, attracting 15.4 percent of the total grant money awarded to date from the EU’s Horizon 2020 R&D programme.

A further €1.4 billion from EU structural funds is due to be invested in UK research and innovation projects from 2014 – 2020.

“It is clear that there are benefits of being in the EU for UK life sciences and research bodies in terms of collaboration and access to an EU market many times bigger than the UK market alone,” said Blackwood. “If we left, our life sciences sector would still have to follow EU regulations to sell in the single market. But Britain wouldn’t get a say in setting those rules, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.”

Leave campaigners have claimed that the UK’s National Health Service will be threatened if the UK remains inside the EU because the huge EU-US trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), will mean health services have to compete with private health providers from the US and Europe.

However, there was concern expressed to the committee - and noted in the report - that a vote to leave would cut the UK out of TTIP.

The proposed pharmaceutical cooperation in TTIP includes mutual recognition of inspections of drug manufacturing plants, to avoid regulators having to do the same job twice. Ian Hudson, chief executive of the UK drug regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency told the committee that TTIP would enable more sharing of information and less duplication of effort. “Moving to mutual recognition on inspections would be extremely helpful. At the moment we inspect in the US, and the US sends inspectors over to factories in the UK,” Hudson said.

Some frustrations

At the same time the committee identifies areas where Brussels red tape could be reduced.

In particular, the 2001 Clinical Trials Directive is criticised for, “Significantly increase[ing] the administrative burden and cost of running academic clinical trials and a reduction in trials taking place in Europe.”

An improved Clinical Trials Regulation is due to take effect in 2018 but the Wellcome Trust complained that, “It took some time to recognise the concerns and bring forward new regulatory proposals.”

But the report acknowledges that outside the EU setting up clinical trials country by country, “Would likely introduce even more delay and bureaucracy than the current EU system,” for British researchers.

The MPs are also critical about policy and attitudes surrounding genetically modified (GM) crops in the EU, emphasising the need to introduce “scientifically-led” conversations on such “emotive issues” and calling GM an area that, “Has so far not come close to satisfactorily demonstrating an evidence-based approach to policy making”.

Blackwood said the EU system for regulating the life sciences is not perfect and improvements need to be made to reduce its complexity, speed it up and make it more evidence-based on issues like GM. “Nevertheless, UK life sciences benefit significantly from EU funding and scientific collaboration across member states,” said Blackwood. “Brexit would put this at risk.”

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