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Levelling-up can turn the UK’s life sciences sector in to a ‘superpower’

Richard Sloggett, Founder and Programme Director | Future Health

5 min read Partner content

The urgency of the pandemic showed the potential of a supercharged life sciences sector. As the government begins to move forward with its 'levelling up' programme, it is crucial that we build on that momentum for other conditions.

Government has now published its long-awaited levelling up plans, which aim to link jobs and growth in our regions to new innovation-based industry clusters that can help raise wages in areas across the country. Life sciences – the sector that produces critical medicines, diagnostics and medical technologies–  is already among the biggest and most important of these industries. For levelling-up plans to work, the government needs to ensure the UK life science operating environment is genuinely world-leading.

Domestically, our life sciences sector is already thriving. It is our biggest contributor to industrial R&D and employs tens of thousands of people across the country in a research and manufacturing base that is growing year on year. Recognising this potential for growth and job creation, government last year published a ‘Life sciences vision’ to help the UK become the best place to develop and launch new medicines. 

The challenge is that many other countries and regions from Ireland to the US, China to France to the Benelux region in the EU have the same ambition.New research published this week shows how the UK measures up against this global challenge and sets out what is needed to make progress from where we are now. 

The work, commissioned by a number of leading life sciences companies investing in the UK, shows the country has some great strengths to build from. Governments of both colours since the 2000s have consistently backed the sector through a series of investments and centrally backed policy strategies. This has yielded real results, most clearly evidenced in the research, development and deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine.

However, the research finds that despite pledges in previous strategic documents, the UK is dropping behind on some really critical measures. Our global share of clinical trials is falling, the speed of clinical trials is slower than in many other countries and the recovery of trials due to Covid has been challenging. The uptake of up new medicines in the UK in key areas such as cancer is behind many other European countries. Ambitions on investment in research have yet to fully materialise and potentially major assets such as a connected health data infrastructure that can deliver innovation remains too fragmented. 

For the Government’s new life sciences strategy to deliver, a forthcoming implementation plan should tackle these issues and include three core elements.  

Making the UK the best place in the world for life sciences is not just about discoveries, but launching them commercially and scaling them successfully through the NHS and then on to be exported globally

First, a clear set of new performance metrics should be introduced by ministers to monitor the UK’s progress on the more cutting-edge issues we need to get right to boost competitiveness. There should be more focus on updating data on how long it takes to get medicines to approval, particularly post Brexit, and how patients can access the latest medicines. Much of the existing data is not up to date and not detailed enough to draw meaningful conclusions on performance.  

The second is better organisational co-ordination. There are a number of bodies that are critical to bringing pharmaceutical innovations developed in the laboratory into reliable and effective use. These include central government, arms length bodies, regulators, and the NHS itself. The level of health innovation coming through is exciting but it is critical that the work of these various bodies is more closely connected and properly resourced to deliver success.  

The final area is better reporting and transparency of progress. There should be new ambitions and targets set for the UK’s global competitiveness in key areas like global trial recruitment, speed of appraisals for new medicines and improving levels of research funding. NHS England should be formally required to support these goals through the annual mandate from the Department of Health and Social Care and an annual report on them should be laid before Parliament for open scrutiny.

Baking these elements into the Government’s implementation plan for life sciences would catalyse more innovation on the scale needed to create serious levels of new job creation, growth and levelling-up across the country. Making the UK the best place in the world for life sciences is not just about discoveries, but launching them commercially and scaling them successfully through the NHS and then on to be exported globally. 

The world-leading speed of Britain’s vaccination programme was testament to the way our life sciences industry worked with government and the NHS to turn scientific discovery into a national roll-out of new vaccines. Of course, the pandemic created the urgency to do that. If we can harness just some of that kind of energy to the task of developing new medicines for other conditions such as dementia, cancer and cardiovascular disease, the UK could genuinely become a life sciences superpower, with all the life-saving and economic benefits that would come with that.  

Richard Sloggett is Founder and Programme Director of Future Health, a specialist healthcare research body. He is a former Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.  

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