November 15, 2016

Is Brexit the death of UK life science?

Is Brexit the death of UK life science?

William Pett discusses the impact of the UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union on the country’s burgeoning life sciences sector.

It’s difficult to remember a single event dominating the political agenda in Britain as much as the ongoing Brexit saga has over the past six months. It has had, and will continue to have, wide-ranging ramifications across the policy spectrum: on investor confidence, the value of the pound, immigration and the future of the arts, to name but a few. However, there seems to have been little focus in the broadsheets on Brexit’s potential effects on health policy and the UK’s thriving, but delicate, life science industries.

In recent years, the UK has punched well above its weight when it comes to life science and research. We are very much a David against Goliaths such as the USA, Japan and Germany (we spend half as much, or less, on research and development per capita as all three). It is a testament to successive governments’ support for innovation that while the UK represents just 0.9 per cent of global population, 3.2 per cent of R&D expenditure, and 4.1 per cent of researchers, it accounts for 9.5 per cent of downloads, 11.6 per cent of citations and 15.9 per cent of the world’s most highly-cited articles.

However, and as the science community has repeatedly highlighted, key to this success has been our membership of the European Union. In relation to life science, the EU allows member states to collaborate and share resources in a way that would not be otherwise possible (at least not without the introduction of a separate, and undoubtedly complex, international framework). There has been widespread frustration amongst researchers, therefore, that science was largely absent from pre-referendum debates on Brexit, and also that the EU was uniformly presented as a hierarchical, top-down demagogue whose orders and diktats the UK blindly follows. In some areas of the EU’s remit one could argue that this might be a fair reflection, but in the life sciences the UK’s relationship with member states is one of co-operation, mutual interest and shared success.

In a recent Westminster Hall debate on the issue of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), a number of MPs set out the benefits that the UK has reaped by working so closely with our European partners. The SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford, one of only 10 qualified doctors in the House of Commons, outlined that the UK had experienced “nothing but health gains” by being a part of the EU. She stated that the harmonisation of regulation facilitated by the EMA has ensured that drugs get from the research phase to patients far more quickly and that it has given greater clout to the state in their engagement with the pharmaceutical industries. In the past, drugs companies have, for example, been reluctant to trial drugs in children due to the extra resources involved, yet the EMA has been able to insist on paediatric trials. This has been to the benefit of all member states and the thousands of children using newly approved drugs.

The Prime Minister has uttered the phrase ‘Brexit means Brexit’ so many times that she must now be saying it in her sleep, and it is right that she is critically questioned on issues such as how the UK’s departure will affect access to the single market, the free movement of people, and legislation on issues ranging from human rights to climate change. However, we should clearly also be questioning what Brexit will mean for the regulation of drugs, and for research and development.

From a practical perspective, the fact that the EMA currently bases its headquarters in the UK is significant. Not only do 900 highly skilled staff work there, staff from across Europe, but it is a key lure for pharmaceutical companies to base their activities in the UK. The chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has said that he foresees a major loss of inward investment in this country because of the loss of the EMA headquarters in London and because of our possible exit from the EMA.

History has shown that Big Pharma like to be based close to their regulators and should the UK leave the EMA as a result of Brexit then this will be to the advantage of a future host country. Italy and Sweden are already said to be manoeuvring themselves into position to become the next base for the organisation, both undoubtedly gleeful that this valuable asset might be prized away from the UK. It would represent a huge loss of investment, both of financial and intellectual capital, if we were to lose it, and even if we are able to stay in the EMA post-Brexit then our influence will certainly be diminished.

The fact is that, with technology, innovation and research moving so quickly, life science is an extremely competitive international environment. Comparative advantage is key and in the case of the EMA this has been a vital asset, allowing us to compete with countries with far bigger populations and far bigger wallets. There is a very real risk, therefore, of the UK being left behind. Nicola Blackwood, Minister for Health and Innovation, wrote recently that the government will ensure that Britain remains a ‘science powerhouse’ in spite of Brexit. I fear, however, that her words are reflective of Theresa May’s optimism-through-gritted-teeth approach in government, and I doubt that they will be much consolation to the academics, researchers and doctors who are fearing for the future of British medical science. Let us hope that such fears are proved wrong.

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William Pett
William Pett is the Campaign Manager for Empower: Data4Health. Launched in February 2016, the campaign is calling on the government to roll out electronic patient records across the NHS to improve treatment for the most vulnerable patients. Further information can be found at
  • Nockian

    No article ? Maybe it’s spread to comment central ?

    Central banks don’t work any better than any other kind of soviet style producer. They produce too many tractors when we need more ploughs. This is because banking isn’t independent, it isn’t laissez faire capitalism that is being practised, but the soviet style economics of central planning. It is not, per se, the fault of the central banks, anymore than it was the fault of the Russian tractor factories for under/ over producing as a result of state diktat. Unfortunately we have a mixed economy, which is 50% socialistic and has been expanding for several decades-most of us now give over 60% of our earnings to government directly (it’s probably a bit more depending on inflation and inflexible tax bands).

    The answer is to get the state out of commerce, then the central banks will either survive or collapse within a laissez faire banking system, but first we must begin to accept the truth, that we cannot continue to sustain such a gargantuan welfare system and its associated government. If we want to produce more, we need to be taxed less, we must save not spend.

  • ratcatcher11

    If everyone saved and did not spend there would be a massive worldwide slump, so it is obvious there has to be spending. Making things for sale is thus important, services alone cannot sustain an economy. One of the biggest problems is Keynsian economics that are basically tax, print and spend socialist policies. We do not need the government to build a railway we need a private company to build the railway which will compete with air travel fairly, not by taxing air travel to make it it less profitable. Thus the governments air taxes should be scrapped and private companies encouraged to re open rail lines closed by Beeching. This is the development we need not government spending 90 billion of money on an HS2 line built from somewhere to nowhere and never stops to pick up passengers.

  • Debs

    Expansion of economies cannot go on forever no matter what so called monetary policy is. You dont need to be an economics expert to realise it.

    All I know is governments and banks seem to be constantly coming up with schemes to leave we the lowly tax payer with less of our money.Forget about the trumpeted tax cuts ,everything else is going up accordingly except real wages of course. Dont even mention the Green scam or the cheap labour scam.

    Bail ins and cashless society are two more scams I have seen trailed in various media outlets over the past few years. Gradually our hard earned money is being prised away from us to fritter away on who knows what.

    They wonder why Trump got elected.

  • Nockian

    The market will raise rates eventually, regardless of wether the central bank wishes it or not. The problem is that we have all become mesmerised at central bank control, when, in reality, at this stage they have little at all. They cannot raise rates to normal, because, firstly, we don’t know what normal looks like (it could already be normal) and secondly any increases will create an avalanche effect-let’s face it, no one but the wealthiest wants to bring down countries governments through a collapse in public spending leading to actual anarchy on our streets.

    The bogey man of fractional reserve is a myth that has permeated libertarian consciousness, in a free market banks would have to take risk or they would, by any definition, not be free market. Banks are not currently lending to private individuals because capital requirements are already so high-they have become zombified businesses that look like they function, but are like the shops we set up as kids with funny money and plastic fruit. The market is broken as far as banks are concerned, they are no longer part of it.

    Fixing the problem cannot begin by looking at the central bank, nor the main banks. It’s far too late to consider than anything can be done at this stage, we are so far beyond normal that we aren’t looking at a functioning banking system at all. It would be like bleeding the radiators to solve a broken boiler.

    The problem we have is at its heart a simple one. It’s the problem that labour refused to accept when the banks blew up. We have an unsustainable welfare system and an over sized government. We have to tackle our public spending first of all and I see little sign that any current, nor perspective government is prepared to give the public the awful news about the reality.

    Even the great Tory saviours have flunked out of the monetary boiler rooms. The situation is dire, there is no fuel left, we have been ripping up the ships timbers to maintain the illusion of tranquil sailing progress, but eventually the ship will sink for lack of substance. There is no monetary policy that can save us, all we are going to get is an ever growing war on cash, savers and anyone who tries to make a profit. We are going to end up in the late stages of a soviet style melt down whilst spinning mirrors to pretend it isn’t happening.

    We all know what’s going on, we can offer solutions, make sympathetic noises and talk up any temporary progress, but the reality of the situation is now apparent. We have to do what every debtor must eventually conclude; that our spending has unfortunaly exceeded our earning capacity and all those red letters mean some drastic rethinking is required. We are going to reach the end of the road, not by a sudden explosion, but the drift into monetary authoritarianism which will result in ever greater protectionism and falling living standards. We are in great danger of losing the West to the East and ending up as country cousins of a world of declining freedoms and the rise mysticism.

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