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Life sciences are vital for the whole UK economy

Life sciences are vital for the whole UK economy
4 min read

The life sciences industry boosts Britain’s economy – we can’t afford to ignore the concerns of this sector in the Brexit talks, writes Daniel Zeichner 

As any visitor to Cambridge will notice, it has become a city of cranes and construction – and much of that is associated with the rapidly growing biomedical campus. Life sciences are key to future success in Cambridge, and in the UK, with exports now worth over £20bn per annum. Cambridge’s biomedical campus is world-leading, home now to AstraZeneca’s global headquarters and R&D centre, as well as housing many other big names in pharma and medical research.

This isn’t just vital for Cambridge, or to the east of England where there were reportedly 34,000 life science jobs in 2015 and likely more since the AstraZenica move, but for the whole UK economy. In 2015 overall, the UK life sciences sector contributed an estimated £30.4bn to the UK economy according to PwC, and supported nearly half a million jobs. Two-thirds of these jobs are outside the south-east, and the sector’s workforce productivity is around twice the UK average. With such a significant contribution to jobs and GDP, we cannot afford to ignore the concerns of this sector in the approaching Brexit negotiations and any deal reached.

The sector has voiced its concerns over researcher mobility, talent acquisition and retention. If highly skilled immigrants are at risk of not securing visas, this could pose real issues for the industry, which relies on large numbers of technicians and researchers who may not qualify for Tier 2 visas due to their remuneration level.

It’s hard to get solid figures for the number of EU staff currently employed in the sector as companies are not required to record this information but, anecdotally, it is not good news. International centres of excellence such as the Sanger Institute in Cambridge which I visited recently, like other similar institutions, are reporting a drop in EU applications – and those people will be very hard to replace.

While current levels of investment in technical education may rise in future, that will take time to translate into the numbers of people needed, and we face a real risk of damaging some of our most successful research institutions. Some voices in the sector call for a “quick and cheap” post-Brexit immigration system, which recognises the very real need, but until we see the government’s plans for a post-Brexit immigration system, there is a genuine worry that the various registration schemes mooted so far will prove to be a real obstacle to getting the people the sector needs. Very top talent may still be attracted and mobile, but without the technicians to make their work viable, they may simply go elsewhere.

The regulatory landscape is similarly uncertain. While leaving the European Union inevitably means losing the European Medicines Agency from London, the current very close relationship with the UK‘s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) means that both the EU and the UK risk losing out.

Optimists argue that the skills and expertise of the MHRA will mean a continued close relationship is likely, while others worry that major companies will prioritise licensing in the much larger European market. In an exquisite irony, it is highly likely that far from producing more money for the NHS, as promised by those advocating leaving the European Union, industry leaders have warned that innovative medicines may reach UK patients more slowly, and at greater cost. As I have cautioned in parliamentary debates, that means less money, not more, for the NHS.

Continuing uncertainty around access to skills and around regulatory frameworks is damaging and companies will inevitably begin to prepare for a range of scenarios, in itself creating additional costs. As in other sectors, the case for an extensive transitional period is very strong. That may just give us the breathing space to build a new set of relationships with our European partners that play to our long-term strengths in research and innovation, and allows those magnificent new facilities being constructed in Cambridge to be put to good use. It is in everyone’s interest that we do so. 


Daniel Zeichner is Labour MP for Cambridge and Vice-chair of the Life Sciences APPG 

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