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Strengthening the UK Life Sciences Environment

Strengthening the UK Life Sciences Environment

Chi Onwurah MP and Dr Natalie White PhD | MSD

7 min read Partner content

The UK's life sciences sector has unlocked potential for growth. Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Dr Natalie White PhD, Executive Clinical Research Director at MSD write about the need for industry-government collaboration and investment in the life sciences sector.

Improving the UK’s Clinical Research Environment

Dr Natalie White, PhD – Executive Clinical Research Director UK & ROI, MSD

The Life Sciences Vision published in 2021 outlines the government’s ambitions for the sector over the next decade. It sets out the intention to make the UK the leading global centre for innovative research design and delivery across all types and phases of clinical trials, and to create a more efficient research environment. This is critical for the UK life sciences ecosystem; embracing innovation is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of the NHS, and to delivering better outcomes for patients in the UK and around the world. With a recession looming, the significant contribution of the life sciences sector to the UK economy is more important than ever, and the government has a key role to play in unlocking its growth potential.

State of Clinical Trials in the UK

A report published by the ABPI demonstrated a serious decline in industry clinical trials in the UK. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of trials initiated in the UK per year fell by 41% (Phase III down by 47%), the UK’s global ranking for late-stage clinical research fell from 4th in the world to 10th in Phase III trials, and patient access to industry clinical trials declined by 44%[1]. The Life Sciences Competitiveness Indicators published earlier this year reported that the UK tends to be slower than comparator countries in clinical trial set up[2]. These findings demonstrate a clear threat to the future of clinical research in the UK, but also present an opportunity for us to act now and get this right, to bring about the benefits of research to patients, the NHS, and the UK economy. 


Policy to support the delivery of clinical research is a vital component in ensuring the recovery of clinical trials in the UK. The Health & Care Bill includes a research mandate for Integrated Care Boards to deliver the UK clinical research vision, and development of the guidance and metrics to sit under this mandate is currently underway. This is an opportunity to drive the cultural change in the NHS as to how research is adopted as a part of core business, which will be critical for the implementation of the Vision.

It is essential that industry is consulted in this process and considered a partner in the conversation, to ensure the guidance supports both commercial and non-commercial research. Commercial clinical research contributes significant economic benefits, generating an estimated income of £355 million for the NHS in England in 2018/2019[3]. Assumptions are often made about the needs of commercial sponsors, without them in the room. Getting this guidance wrong risks missing the once in a generation opportunity we have to see the change that is needed, to ensure the future of clinical research in the UK.

Looking forward

MSD has a significant footprint in the UK, with 139 clinical research studies currently underway and plans progressing for our £1billion London Discovery Centre. To sustain global boardroom sentiment about the UK’s leadership in clinical research, we need momentum and a doubled down focus on implementing the Vision.

Slow and iterative changes to the UK clinical research environment have been delivered over the last few years. Now is the time for more urgent and sustained changes, particularly in how the NHS is supported to deliver trials. Improving the commercial clinical research environment would help attract further industry investment (delivering on the government’s plan for growth), contribute to health outcomes, and generate significant revenue for the NHS. To progress towards this ambition, we need a commitment from the government to engage with us now, so that we can be a true partner in solving the problems facing the sector.  

MSD has provided funding for this segment.  Views expressed by the authors represent those of their individual organisations’

 We need to get serious about life sciences

Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The UK’s fantastic Life Science sector is the envy of countries across the world and a reflection of our brilliant science base and proud history of scientific discovery. Covering a significant range of critical areas of discovery in medicine, agriculture and biochemical manufacturing the Life Sciences sector is not only key to understanding ourselves and our world, it is crucial to the high wage, high growth, high skill, high productivity economy we all want to see.

Labour recognises that Life Sciences must be a central part of any industrial strategy. Unfortunately the Conservatives aren’t serious about science. Successive Conservative Governments have failed to match their warm words with deeds.

Their decisions on science over the last decade have been piecemeal and chaotic rather than strategic and focused. We had a Life Sciences Vision published after the Life Sciences Strategy and then left in limbo as the Science Minister position went unoccupied for three months from July to October. Under Truss Nusrat Ghani was appointed and then under Sunak George Freeman was given the job. We now have two science ministers but still no clarity on for example the Manifesto commitment to a Dementia Moonshot.  The Government also decided to abolish the National Science and Technology Council just a year after Boris Johnson set it up and then re-instate it under the same name – but  insisting it is a new entity.

When I regularly meet with life science stakeholders, universities, researchers, venture capital, start-ups and spin outs, their message is clear: the uncertainty and omni-crisis of this government make it difficult for them to invest, operate and prosper. Our life science sector needs and deserves a long-term partner but they have not, and they will not, get this from the current Conservative Government.

Investing in Life Sciences is a no-brainer for our economy. Research from Kings College London and Brunel University demonstrates that for every £1 invested in medical research, we get back 25p to the economy each and every year. Analysis from the ABPI shows that if the UK were to maximize our potential of becoming a global life sciences hub, the UK could gain £68.1 billion in GDP over 30 years from increased R&D investment.[4] Our wonderful NHS should be a magnet for Phase 3 trials. Instead overworked and not properly incentivized, the number of trails have fallen by 41 percent.

A Labour Government would build on the UK’s life science successes, ensuring we spend 3% of our GDP on research and development through a mix of public and private spending.

When the state, science, universities and private sector come together the country can truly succeed. It is this recipe, detailed in our Industrial Strategy: Prosperity Through Partnership, which the next Labour Government will champion. We only have to recall the pandemic and the Astra Zeneca vaccine to illustrate this.

The development, manufacture and delivery of the vaccine into so many arms did not happen by accident. Targeted long-term investment in life sciences by successive Labour governments was a crucial building block of the UK’s strength and expertise in that sector, beginning with the establishment of the Biosciences Innovation and Growth Team and the Office for Life Sciences.

Labour understand that life sciences will be crucial to building regional economies which are strong and self-sufficient. We see a clear path from preliminary research to phase three clinical trials, to pharmaceutical manufacturing and the jobs you can raise a family on. That’s why Labour would also champion universities as engines of regional innovation. We would strengthen regional economies through spreading R&D investment and opportunities across the country.

Only a Labour Government, with our Industrial Strategy, can provide the investment, stability and long-term strategy for Life Sciences to prosper.

[1] ABPI report on Rescuing patient access to industry clinical trials in the UK. Available from: 

[2] Life science competitiveness indicators 2022. Available from: 

[3] ABPI Foreword on an opportunity for growth: Clinical research in the UK. Available from: 


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