Woman working in biological laboratory

UK announces £650m boost for life sciences sector

Image credit: Photo 56654854 © Christian Delbert | Dreamstime.com

The Chancellor has unveiled a £650m 'war chest' that will fund commercial trials, increase the country's biological data bank and encourage pension schemes to invest in emerging science and technology firms.

The new package announced by the government has been presented as a "war chest" that will support scientific innovation in the life sciences sector and help the UK reach its target of becoming a "science superpower".

The 'Life Sci for Growth' package includes 10 different policies. As part of this effort, up to £250m will be provided to incentivise pension schemes to invest in promising science and tech firms, while £154m will be invested in increasing the capacity of the UK’s biological data bank.

In addition, the government has pledged to provide £121m to improve commercial clinical trials to bring new medicines to patients faster, and up to £48m for scientific innovation to prepare for any future health emergencies.

The project also includes plans to relaunch the Academic Health Science Network as Health Innovation Networks to boost innovation by bringing together the NHS, local communities, charities, academia and industry to share best practices.

It also lays out changes to planning rules to free-up lab space and updates a route for the new railway line East West Rail (EWR), which aims to improve connections between Oxford and Cambridge.

The government has presented this plan as a way to boost one of the UK's "most successful sectors". According to official figures, the life sciences sector contributed £94bn to the UK economy in 2021, a 9 per cent increase on the year before. It is currently estimated to employ over 280,000 people in the country.

"These are businesses that are growing our economy while having much wider benefits for our health – and this multi-million pound investment will help them go even further," said chancellor Jeremy Hunt. 

Science and technology secretary Chloe Smith said that the funding delivers on the government’s science and technology framework, and said it represented a “double win” that drove economic growth and supported public health.

The announcement follows the publication of a review by Dame Angela McLean on the UK’s life science regulatory system. 

In the review, Lord O’Shaughnessy – a former health minister – expresses concern that “research is not systematically prioritised by or within the NHS” and called for annual research and design targets for the NHS “at every level” with an ambition to make the health service the “world’s leading platform for health R&D”.

Professor Charlotte Summers, an expert in intensive care medicine at the University of Cambridge, said: “The O’Shaughnessy review has captured many of the issues contributing to the decline in commercial clinical trial activity within the UK, and the government’s commitment to implement the proposed recommendations is to be welcomed.

“If we are to become a science superpower, it is vital that we use this as opportunity to expand clinical trial activity in the UK, and that we do not implement these reforms in a manner that leads to decreased non-commercial research activity – our patients need both.”

Professor Andrew Morris, director of Health Data Research UK, said that the investment in infrastructure and the creation of new public-private partnerships were all “good news” for the sector.

“The one missing thing in today’s announcements that would transform life science research in the UK is a positive conclusion to the talks for the UK to access the EU’s Horizon research programme," he added. 

“Research today is built on team science with collaborations across the globe. Working alongside other top scientists in Europe benefits everyone and keeps all our research at the cutting edge, speeding benefits for patients and the public.”

Following year-long delays to the UK’s associate membership of the €95bn (£81bn) Horizon Europe programme due to the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the latest Brexit deal has been hailed as "good news" and could bring an agreement on the subject.

The delays over the UK’s membership of Horizon have prompted criticism from the scientific community, which has been greatly impacted by the lack of access to EU funds. Oxford and Cambridge universities alone, which used to receive over £130m a year from European research programmes, are now only being granted £1m annually between them.

Moreover, further criticism was voiced after it was revealed that the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had returned £1.6bn of funds earmarked for science and innovation programmes, including Horizon Europe. 

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