UK government publishes 10-year Life Sciences Vision
“Life Sciences will be one of the great drivers of growth in the twenty first century.”
The first sentence of the foreword to the British Government’s new Life Sciences Vision sums up how critical this strategy will be to the future of UK plc. On any long-term time horizon, it is impossible to imagine the UK economy being successful without fintech, green/cleantech and the life sciences, being its most important and dynamic industries. We have known this for some time, of course, and the new Vision represents the third iteration of the UK’s life sciences strategy in ten years, but the experiences of the last 18 months have demonstrated that this is not simply a story of jobs, growth, and investment – it is also a story of how we can live longer, healthier and happier lives. The clinical and economic benefits of R&D are intertwined as never before, as the Prime Minister makes clear in his own opening statement to the Vision.
The necessity of developing a truly symbiotic relationship between the economy and the NHS in order to deliver the Vision is tackled head on, and rightly so. The UK’s abiding weakness in this area has never been its basic science, or the quality of the health service, but the inability of the two to work in harmony. Too often the NHS has seen medical innovation as an added expense it would rather do without, while the rising burden of health needs has squeezed clinicians’ ability to devote time to research. As a consequence, the level of R&D in health services is only the same as the UK economy average, despite the centrality of this function to the delivery of better health outcomes. At the same time, industry has complained about the ‘low and slow’ uptake of its products and services, as well as the keen prices it has to offer, and too often positioned itself as a hard-done-by supplier without offering solutions to the complex challenges that modern health systems face.
To overcome this uncomfortable relationship, the Vision uses the novel approach of setting preconditions for its success. These include commitments to ongoing public investment in R&D, with the Govt promising to reach 2.4% (and eventually 3%) of GDP allocated to this function, as well as radically better access to private finance. These are critical requirements, but it is notable that the other two preconditions relate directly to the NHS: first, that it must be an active partner in innovation, and second that its uniquely valuable data assets (including highly personal genomic data) must be available to drive research.
Both of these are highly significant promises. The first commits the NHS to doing much better on the adoption of transformative new diagnostic tools and treatments that will contribute to the health and wellbeing goals it has set itself in the Long-term Plan, and to make more time for clinicians to take part in research. These are not cost-free proposals, and it remains to be seen whether more funding will be made available to support them in the upcoming Spending Review. For now, the new Vision has no new money. The second requires the DHSC, NHS and other partners to walk the very fine line between widening access to data for R&D and enhancing patient privacy and agency, something which has not always been achieved in the past. But if they can both be fulfilled then this Vision will be a significant step forward, both for the industry and – more importantly – for patients, with the NHS developing into the world’s largest test bed for life science innovation.
As we would expect, the Vision is largely viewed through the lens of the more positive experiences from the pandemic response, and many of the other commitments build on those successes. These include a goal for the UK to be “the leading global centre for innovative research design and delivery”, drawing on the experiences of the RECOVERY, PRINCIPLE and other trials, as well as a move towards more digitally delivered clinical research. And there is a focus on another strength – regulation – and how the UK can become a global regulator of choice for the rapidly growing digital health sector, as well as more transformative pharma and medtech.
If there is one missing piece, however, it is an ambitious move – akin to the creation of the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) fifteen years ago – to address the area of the value chain where the UK is weakest. A new Task Force is being created to address the structural ‘scale-up and adoption’ problem head on, and to consider all the requirements – public, academic, private, investor and regulatory – of a system that enables the most transformative innovations to reach national scale rapidly. Other initiatives, like growing the role of the Accelerated Access Collaborative, will help too. However, this is a time for bold thinking, and what the Vision still needs is a plan for the creation of an institution of the scale, independence and authority of the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust or the NIHR to tackle the adoption problem. Hopefully the Task Force will make such a recommendation and bind the NHS as a willing partner into this endeavour, finally linking up the best bench-to-bedside value chain that exists anywhere in the world. That would be a fitting response to the suffering so many have encountered in recent years, and a springboard for better health and wealth in years to come.
This article provides a snapshot of the Life Sciences Vision, if you would like to learn more or understand the work of Newmarket Strategy, please do contact us.