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.

5.00 avg. rating (95% score) - 2 votes
William Pett
William Pett is a health policy and communications consultant at MHP Health. Views expressed are his own.
  • Shadow Warrior

    Hammond is continuity Brown. He is a hand-wringing lefty looking for clever wheezes to raise more tax in ways that people don’t immediately notice.

  • captainslugwash

    I predict the Budget will attempt to show the Left how caring the Tories are, and it will be funded by screwing over the working man.
    If Corp Tax comes down, I bet Divi tax will be going up.
    I would love to be wrong.

  • skynine

    We really need to look at tax credits, in particular in work tax credits that encourage people to work part time to preserve the benefits. 45% of women work part time and I would hazard a guess that tax credits are the main cause. This leads to low pay, low skill work in supermarkets and the retail sector including coffee shops. The government needs to get back to the employer paying people to do a job for economic reasons rather than to get onto the tax credit ladder. Like all government benefits it distorts the market and diverts government expenditure into non productive areas.
    The refrain that the government has cut expenditure is not true, it increases every year as more and more goes into welfare.

  • MrVeryAngry

    fat chance

  • MrSauce

    So, when wouldn’t we want a ‘budget for growth’?

  • Rob

    I note that the UK Government has just slapped on a 25% tax charge for anyone moving abroad and wishing to move out their private pension from the UK.

  • SonofBoudica

    The Remoaners will do their utmost to sabotage the Government’s negotiating position. They do not want a successful outcome; they want a failure. They want to be able to scream “Told you so!” from the rooftops.

  • EnglandLaments

    Thank goodness for Andrew Neil, the one media hack who scares the pants off the established politicians. He was spot on with Heidi Allen!

  • joshuafalken

    I had a very long, hard, studied and considered look at the hope, care and aspirations of all Europeans, before I voted to get the UK out of the toxic grasp of Brussels.

    The European Union and it’s charge of “ever closer union” has borrowed and spent its way to oblivion, whilst enslaving the working and middle classes in debt.

    The central control mantra of the unaccountable Brussels ruling elite, delivered through a mixture of socialism, globalism and corporatism is entirely responsible for the populist revolt by the millions of “Just About Managings” across Europe.

    We must remember the ultimate goal of socialists, globalists and corporatists is control, not prosperity. see—-not-prosperity.

    Social equality and economic growth always fail under central control and fighting against the Brussels doctrine on behalf of all Europeans is why I voted for Brexit.

    Britain has a long history of helping Europeans depose tyrants and Brussels is just the latest incarnation.

    Britain is the most racially advanced and accepting society on the planet. We welcome those in need and those that can help us with open arms and a smile; that will not change.

    We are also one of the most innovative, talented and open societies in the world, which why everyone wants to live here. However, we cannot fit everyone in, so we have to have clear, balanced and fair immigration policy which is where the arguments start between the monetarists and humanists will never be reconciled.

    I thought long and hard before coming to the conclusion that leaving the EU was in the best interest of all Europeans, as Brussels is toxic and cannot be reformed from within.

    Also, I find it insulting that people who voted Remain have insufficient faith in British ingenuity, compassion and skill to get a good deal for us and see the Europe that we love get a better deal from Brussels and the reform that European people deserve. and

    The politics of left verses right are dead because neither have delivered the promised economic growth and social mobility for anyone, but themselves. The populists are not selfish per-se, they just want to take back control of their own destiny that left/right politicians have freely given away and/or exploited for their own ends. In my constituency, the local residents group are taking over the councils as politicians ignore voters, so Westminster should beware of the well-organised, local resident independents at the next election. This is a peoples revolution which should be shouted from the rooftops, but liberals remained deafened by the socialist, globalist and corporatist “vested interests” that have spectacularly failed us and are obediently crying foul and fake.

    There will be an initial unpalatable inflationary cost to fighting globalism and rolling back central control that few appear to have factored in, but dismantling failed left/right vested interests should eventually free libertarian socially-conservative capitalism from the shackles of TBTF corporatism to feed economic growth and social mobility.

  • agdpa

    The EU usually makes the wrong decision – on immigration, on freedom of movement, on the euro, on the Ukraine, etc. etc. Little hope it will get Brexit right.

  • brownowl

    Eh? Reference please!

  • Neil2

    Sod caring. Screw the spongers and breeders. Kill HS2. Stop all “green” subsidies. Slash “foreign aid” and walk away from the EUSSR with immediate effect.

  • Rob
  • John C

    What a confused article. It conflates surveillance by the security services with poor defences against fraud.

  • John C

    Err, it’s the UK that’s leaving the EU, not vice versa.

  • John C

    Me, now. ‘Growth’ is a manic obsession.

  • La Face Nord

    Mr Redwood – are you aware of the Biased BBC website? It’s been exposing their agenda for a long time, but I imagine you’ve been well aware of the BBC’s agenda for quite some time…

  • Contact Rvtech

    The post is great

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