George Freeman: How Britain can lead the global race in life sciences
With some ministers, one senses they could be stuck in any portfolio and would get on with things perfectly efficiently, but without necessarily having the reformer’s zeal of, say, a Michael Gove. The same cannot be said of Britain’s first Life Sciences Minister, George Freeman. The mid-Norfolk MP exudes the enthusiasm of the true believer when he speaks about his “mission” as a minister to build a new healthcare economy based on emerging technologies.
Indeed, his professional background is in biomedical venture capital, based mainly in Cambridge, the same city where he studied geography as an undergraduate. Since joining Parliament in 2010, he has been an active voice, helping form the Fresh Start group on EU reform as well as serving as a PPS to Climate Change minister Greg Barker. His industry was rewarded with the newly created Life Sciences brief in the summer of 2014.
Similar to the Skills brief, Freeman’s role is split across two departments, in this case the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. It means he is tasked not only with helping improve the working of the NHS, but also attracting inward investment for the British life science industry.
Things are certainly booming – one estimate says the life and health sciences industry is worth £50bn a year to the British economy, and employs 175,000 people. But Freeman says this is actually underselling things.
“Life and health sciences is a vast sector of the economy,” he says. “The £50bn figure relates strictly to bio-pharmaceuticals. If you look more generally across, as my portfolio does, life and health sciences – digital health, diagnostics, tele-health, informatics, genomics and the new models of 21st century biomedical research and bio-medicine, it’s a fast-growing and even bigger sector. It’s a huge part of our economy.”
Freeman paints a picture of an extremely dynamic, international industry where the UK is right at the top of its game. As well as welcoming the cream of international science to these shores, there are opportunities for Britain in terms of providing training and education overseas, he says.
“Life and health sciences is very much a global business and part of what this mission is about is unlocking UK leadership in that global race, so we have always and will continue to need to be able to attract the very best scientists and, indeed, entrepreneurs, investors and leaders to come to the UK.”
With hundreds of thousands of Brits emigrating each year, is he concerned we could lose some of our best talent to overseas?
“The truth is we are retaining huge talent and skills in the UK and in fact one of our great strengths around the world is in pharmaceuticals, in biotechnology, in digital health, in diagnostic devices. There is a huge UK diaspora of UK leaders in very influential positions in the sector.”
As with all areas of industry, the role of the European Union is crucially important. Freeman, who has in the past described himself as a “practical Eurosceptic”, has written eloquently about his view that the UK needs to be leading the case for a more dynamic, entrepreneurial EU that can compete with emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere.
While he is certainly not one of the ‘out at all costs’ awkward squad, he does feel there is a real responsibility on Brussels to produce a good quality regulatory system.
He warns there is a “danger of EU over-regulation and misregulation” in fields where the UK is successful, such as regenerative medicine, stem cells, clinical trials and agricultural science.
“It’s really important that the EU put in place an enlightened regulatory framework so that the UK and the EU are able to lead in these emerging markets, rather than regulate ourselves into a backwater and miss the opportunity to unlock the power of our huge science base to help tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges,” he says.
Not only does life sciences have the potential to produce revenues, it can also save the public sector a lot of money, Freeman argues, by installing more innovative technologies in hospitals.
The aim is to achieve a “tangible digital breakthrough” for patients so they can access the NHS digitally “in the same way that they can access every other walk of life”. For instance, patients will soon be able to book appointments on iPads and use digital devices to arrange collection of prescriptions, while a new portal will let people see healthcare outcomes in different parts of the country.
This greater enabling of technology is all part of what Freeman describes as a “quiet revolution in transparency and accountability” under Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Health Secretary.
He describes the aim as moving away from a 20th century health model where health was something “done to citizens”, to a nation of “active healthcare citizens” who can “take more responsibility for our life and health choices”.
And Freeman is clear about the potential financial benefits to the NHS: “It’s a huge dividend bonus for UK healthcare both in terms of efficiency in the service and driving economic growth to pay for rising healthcare costs. There is no doubt that keeping people out of hospital, diagnosing earlier, treating smarter, improving care pathways, will take huge costs out of the system as well as improving the patient pathway.”
Life sciences can also help new diagnostics that will hopefully not only save money but also “have a major effect on patient quality”, by catching conditions at an early stage so that we move, in Freeman’s words “from a paradigm where we treat the late stage symptoms of disease in the most expensive clinical setting, the hospital”.
As well as helping to rewire, almost literally, the infrastructure of the NHS to make it a “paperless” service, Freeman is also involved in the health version of the ‘northern powerhouse’, the Northern Health Science Alliance. He describes the NHSA as a “powerhouse of clinical life and health science technology”, with five cities and eight hospitals creating a clinical research infrastructure of some 20 million patients.
But it’s not just the North, the minister says, that can reap the rewards of ever-expanding sector.
“In my first nine months as a minister I’ve been to see extraordinary inward investment into clusters of excellence in Northern Ireland, in Wales, in the North East, in the North West and in the South West.
“So while it’s sometimes characterised as being very Oxford, Cambridge, London focused, in fact in these new emerging fields of digital health, clinical informatics, advanced manufacturing, there are huge growth opportunities in all parts of the UK.
“I think there is a huge opportunity for us, as part of our broader hard and soft infrastructure programme, for connecting our northern and regional life science clusters, as part of making this a key area of growth for the UK in the 21st century.”
This is also the case in Freeman’s own patch in East Anglia. While Cambridge is helping to power “phenomenal growth across the East of England”, there is also exciting work being done in other parts of the region.
“For centres like Norwich in agricultural and nutrition research and Ipswich in digital health, linking them with faster rail and fast broadband, as we have and continue to do, helps to drive these new opportunities out into the regional and rural economy and into some of the pockets of deprivation, for example in some of our coastal towns, which have for too long been denied access.”
It is in whether he and his colleagues can translate this cutting edge technology into the bread-and-butter Tory concerns of jobs and economic growth that Freeman’s mission will succeed or fail.