“Life sciences are at the heart of my vision to build a country fit for the future,” tweeted new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss last month. Now installed as leader of a country facing a once-in-a-generation cost of living and energy cost crisis compounded by geopolitical turbulence and the continuing fallout from Brexit, it remains to be seen just what role the life sciences will play in her premiership.
Life sciences are at the heart of my vision to build a country fit for the future. As Prime Minister I will make it easier than ever for firms like @SaiLifeSciences to invest in Britain, and make us a science and technology superpower.#LizForLeader pic.twitter.com/EcCdj2U7Dp
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) August 10, 2022
Stakeholders from academia and industry have weighed in on their own hopes, building on some of the achievements of her predecessor Boris Johnson, but more importantly rectifying many of the worrying trends that threaten the UK’s position as a globally competitive “science and technology superpower.”
A recent Nature editorial called the past three years “a roller coaster for government–academia relations in the United Kingdom. Johnson’s government was fond of slogans like ‘Global Britain’ and ‘science superpower’, and there were some notable achievements. But these were overshadowed by a litany of lows.”
This litany included the fact that the Johnson administration – in which Truss served as international trade secretary and foreign secretary – pursued a so-called ‘hard Brexit’ and a radical break with previous EU arrangements. Nature posits that this needlessly froze out UK researchers from Horizon Europe, one of the world’s largest research funding programmes.
Others agree that British insularity threatens the country’s global standing in science and research. For Dr Beth Thompson, associate director of policy at global health-focused charitable foundation Wellcome, “There is a vital need for global collaboration; UK-based scientists and institutions need to collaborate with their counterparts around the world, and the UK needs to be an attractive and exciting place to work.” Dr Thompson added, “Horizon Europe is a prime example – the new government must secure the closest possible involvement to safeguard research collaboration.”
Royal Society president Sir Adrian Smith stated that “Science is global, and the impact of Brexit has increasingly made UK science look insular. The last government was fully committed to the UK associating to EU science funding schemes, but after nearly two years we are still waiting. While we wait, confidence in and around UK science is ebbing away and we are losing talent. It would be a real win for the new PM to get the science part of Brexit done now.”
In an open letter to both Truss and her Conservative Party leadership opponent Rishi Sunak back in July, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) noted some of its key concerns for the future of the sector. ABPI President Richard Torbett pointed out that clinical research activity is declining and that sponsors and hospitals face “significant challenges in setting up and recruiting patients to cutting-edge industry trials. The UK has fallen from fifth to seventh in the world for Phase III clinical trials since 2017.”
Torbett also stated that the UK’s share of global pharmaceutical R&D expenditure fell from 7.7 percent in 2012 to 4.1 percent in 2019, that only 68 percent of medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) were made available in England between 2017 and 2020, compared to 92 percent in Germany, and that since 2010, the UK has fallen from fourth to 98th place in overall trade balance in pharmaceuticals.
As Prime Minister, we look forward to working with @trussliz to take advantage of the huge opportunities for growth in the life sciences sector. Here’s what we need to do: https://t.co/wpA5TqbfkU
— ABPI (@ABPI_UK) September 5, 2022
Torbett was keen to highlight that full implementation of the UK’s Life Sciences Vision could have a massive impact on the country’s health, as well as its economy, projecting GBP 68 billion in additional GDP over 30 years from increased R&D investment, GBP 16.3 billion in additional annual GDP from increased pharmaceutical exports, and a 40 percent decrease in disease burden across the country in areas like cardiovascular disease, mental health conditions and cancer.
Cause for Optimism?
Rosie Lindup, policy and public affairs manager at fellow trade group, the BioIndustry Association (BIA) is optimistic about a Truss government’s approach to the life sciences industry. In August, she observed that “Truss has also committed to “liberat[ing] more of our pension funds to be able to invest in high tech start-ups”, which is in line with BIA recommendations to encourage pension fund investment in life sciences venture capital.”
Lindup also added that Truss’s choice for chancellor of the exchequer – the British equivalent to finance minister – Kwasi Kwarteng bodes well for industry-government relations. “Kwarteng [has] been committed to the Life Sciences Scale-Up Taskforce, which we have been a leading player in, so we would hope that it would continue its work to unlock new sources of capital.”
The scale of Truss’s commitment to UK life sciences may become clearer in the next few weeks. While highlighting reform to the UK’s stretched National Health Service (NHS) as a key priority in her first speech as PM, she is yet to comment in any detail on her vision for the life sciences industry more broadly.
Image Source: Prime Minister’s Office, OGL 3 <http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3>, via Wikimedia Commons