UK life sciences prospects post-Brexit

December 2016

The Brexit decision comes at a time when the UK has, compared to many leading economies, emerged strongly from the economic crisis that began in 2008. And, whilst much of the focus of economic comment regarding Brexit has been on the financial services sector, life sciences is a significant strategic part of the innovation-based economy that has helped in that success and is intended to support the UK into the future – the "Jewel in the crown" of the UK economy, as the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, described it. However, for all the uncertainty caused by the prospect of Brexit, technology does not wait and there are signs that the UK life sciences sector continues to exploit it, unabated, for new medical treatments and technologies. These signs come from both ends of the sector, and reflect much about the confidence of business and government in the UK's rich life sciences support network.

MedCity is an example. This is the name given to the research and development cluster between the world-leading research universities of three English cities: London (Imperial, University College London and King's College London), Oxford and Cambridge, as well as those hospitals with which they have research links. MedCity encourages yet closer networks between those institutions and the financial, legal and other business services that London already hosts in abundance. At the centre of this network is the new Francis Crick Institute, located on Euston Road in London and opened in September of this year, which is billed as the largest research centre under one roof in Europe. The purpose of the Institute is to understand why disease develops and to find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases. It employs over a thousand staff from over 70 countries and has an operating budget of over £100m per year.

At the industial end of the sector, the strategy is the same. For example, AstraZeneca and MedImmune have recently moved nearly two thousand of their scientists and other professionals to their new R&D centre and corporate headquarters on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. Again, this move was predominantly motivated by the desire to integrate with a large research community; including partnerships with the Sanger Institute, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and the University of Cambridge.

Both the Crick and AstraZeneca projects began long before Brexit was a prospect, but there is no indication that the factors that motivated them will be, or have been, affected by the UK leaving the European Union. Indeed, Eli Lilly has stated, since the Brexit decision on 23 June, that its "commitment to research in the UK is dependent on its ability to access an exceptionally skilled scientific and academic workforce" together with the "competitive fiscal incentives and rapid uptake of innovative new medicines" the UK offers1.  Again, it was in order to tap into the scientific expertise of the region and its research environment that Eli Lilly set up its Erl Wood research and development site in the triangle between Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Concern has been expressed about the subject of European funding and continuing access to a skilled European workforce, post-Brexit. However, the speed at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the underwriting of EU 2020 funding after the referendum decision is telling about the prominence of the life sciences sector in the UK economy. The Government has also stated a number of times, most recently the Prime Minister, Theresa May, in Parliament on 16 November, that it will continue to welcome research scientists from the EU, as it does from other parts of the world.

There are other indications of the importance the Government places on life sciences. In the annual UK Prime Minister's address to the Confederation of British Industry in November, Mrs May outlined a commitment (confirmed in the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond's, Autumn Statement a few days later) to make real terms increases in government investment in R&D – including an extra £2 billion a year by 2020/2021 – to help put post-Brexit Britain at the cutting edge of science and technology.

Stating that the UK Government is "ambitious for Britain to become the global go-to place for scientists, innovators and tech investors", the Prime Minister stated that a "new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will direct some of that investment to scientific research and the development of a number of priority technologies in particular." Mrs May also announced her intention to improve tax incentives for UK research, "not simply for the UK to have the lowest corporate tax rate in the G20, but also a tax system that is profoundly pro-innovation."

There has also been further recognition by the Government of the importance of the MedCity region. In his Autumn Statement, Mr Hammond announced that he is backing the National Infrastructure Commission’s interim recommendation for a new Oxford to Cambridge Expressway rail link. In the Chancellor's words, this project is intended to be more than just a transport link, "It can become a transformational tech-corridor, drawing on the world-class research strengths of our two best-known universities".

The indications are, therefore, that recognition by the UK Government that the country must be "match-fit" for Brexit appears to be driving an economic strategy in which the UK will invest in existing strengths. Prominent amongst these strengths is life sciences. As if to underline this point, on 28 November the Government confirmed that, regardless of Brexit, it will ratify the Unified Patent Court (which is technically not an EU body) and Unitary Patent system. The branch of this court focussed entirely on life sciences patents is, of course, in London.

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1 ON Highlights, the newsletter of One Nucleus, Autumn 2016.