Last year the Government announced its plans to develop an Industrial Strategy which would define leading sector areas that can increase productivity and drive growth across the country. The life sciences sector was identified as one of five sectors of key strategic importance to the national economy and will be the focus of a sector deal. To recognise the full capabilities of the sector, the Government commissioned the publication of a Life Science Industrial Strategy to recommend how to utilise existing strengths to boost economic growth while bringing increased benefit to patients.
The Life Science Industrial Strategy report was authored by immunologist Professor Sir John Bell and guided by The Life Science Industrial Strategy Board comprising representatives from the public and private sector.
The life sciences industry is a key part of the UK economy and one of our most successful industrial sectors. It invests more in R&D than any other industry and directly employs over 140,000 people. Its importance has been reinforced by Sir John Bell in several interviews over the past week where he has highlighted the incredible productivity of the life sciences industry compared to other sectors and that it deserves to attract significant investment. The strategy considers how to sustain and strengthen the UK’s position as a world leader in the life sciences with recommendations that range across several areas from basic research and discovery science to ‘moonshot’ long-term high-risk plans. Recommendations made fall under five umbrella themes:
- Science: both discovery and translational. Continued support for the science base, maintaining strength and international competitiveness
- Growth: An environment that encourages companies to start and grow, building on strengths across the UK, including expansion of manufacturing in the sector.
- NHS: NHS and industry collaboration, facilitating better care for patients through better adoption of innovative treatments and technologies.
- Data: Making the best use of data and digital tools to support research and better patient care.
- Skills: Ensuring that the sector has access to a pool of talented people to support its aims through a strong skills strategy.
Commenting on the publication of the report, Sir John Bell said, “We have created a strategy which capitalises on our strong science base to further build the industry into a globally-unique and internationally competitive life sciences ecosystem, supported by collaboration across industry, government, the NHS, academia, and research funders to deliver health and wealth.”
What does the strategy mean for immunology?
Immunology has always played a leading role in the UK’s life sciences industry. The UK ranks first amongst G7 countries for quality of research in infection and immunology, so a life science sector deal which benefits immunology should help strengthen the UK’s world leading position and boost the national economy.
Increase R&D spend to ensure the UK remains competitive: The UK currently spends 1.7% of GDP on R&D – this is the lowest contribution of any country in the G7 and is significantly less than the OECD average of 2.4% and many of our European competitors. Increasing investment to 3% GDP was one of the BSI’s recommendations in our response to the Government’s Green Paper and was echoed in the new strategy.
Data national registries for rare diseases: The introduction of national registries of therapy-area specific patient data across the NHS in England would see the production of meaningful datasets, especially beneficial for rare immunological diseases where patient numbers may be very small.
Support for SMEs: Enabling SME growth, manufacturing and supporting infrastructure across the UK should help create attractive UK companies and world-class life science facilities. 85% of life sciences companies are SMEs so ensuring the appropriate support and tax environment will be essential for their growth and success.
Long-term research programmes: The recommendation for a coalition of funders to form the Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP) and support large, ambitious research projects will ensure we remain ahead of the curve with new technologies and have a healthcare system prepared for an ageing population. These projects, termed ‘moonshot projects’ in the strategy, would be high-risk but with the potential to form completely new industries in healthcare – high-risk/high-reward! HARP recommends programmes to increase the use of genomics in healthcare and to use advanced digital technology and artificial intelligence to improve pathology. Thinking long-term and putting resources where we currently see skill and capability gaps (such as genomics and bioinformatics) will likely have positive feedback for immunology and healthcare more generally.
Vaccine funding boost: Coinciding with the publication of the strategy, the Government announced allocation of £160 million for the life sciences, £66 million of which will go towards a new vaccine centre dedicated to epidemic preparedness hosting discovery research to manufacturing facilities. A home-based vaccine centre will be extremely valuable as the UK departs from the EU and re-establishes regulatory protocols that may mean we are no longer first in line for emergency vaccines when and if an outbreak occurs.
What does the strategy mean in the face of Brexit?
Without a doubt, Brexit was a driving force for the development of the new Industrial Strategy. Making the most of our transition out of the EU and using it as a catalyst rather than a barrier should promote sustained and heightened economic success for the UK rooted from the life sciences.
We know that flexible mobility for researchers has been pivotal to the success of UK immunology and life sciences more broadly and is a major factor in maintaining the UK as a global hub for the high-quality science. Recommendations made in the strategy, such as ensuring an efficient immigration system that allows the recruitment and retention of the talented and skilled individuals, are essential to maintaining our reputation and success.
What happens next?
The answer to this question lies in whether the Government decide to take on board the recommendations made by Sir John Bell’s report. The next step will be the establishment of a sector deal, which will involve a series of negotiations between Government, industry and other involved bodies. At this point, we cannot say which recommendations will be taken forward but assuming the strategy maintains positive momentum, we are optimistic and look forward to the actions that come out of said deal.
Policy and Public Engagement Officer, BSI
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