The proposed industrial strategy for the life sciences sector sets out some ambitious objectives – probably too ambitious, says Ana Nicholls

When the government launched its industrial strategy green paper in January 2017, life sciences was among the five world-leading industries it aimed to cultivate. This August came the first follow-up, when Professor Sir John Bell published his recommendations for a long-term “deal” for the sector. His call for a host of ambitious new life sciences initiatives, including heavy investment in high-risk “moonshot” research, has gone down well with pharmaceutical companies. Yet his chances of getting more than a sprinkling of them approved are very uncertain.

Professor Bell’s far-reaching recommendations are intended to turn the UK into a global hub for medical research and clinical trials, building on its current strengths. They centre around five themes – science, growth, the NHS, data and skills – although Professor Bell shied away from some contentious issues, notably pharmaceutical pricing. A Canadian-British academic who specialises in genetics at the University of Oxford, he is particularly interested in the first of these, devoting over a quarter of his text to it. And he has some pretty major recommendations to make.

A proposed Health Advanced Research Programme (HARP) would see the UK use moonshot research to create two-three whole new industries over the next ten years, probably in genomics, artificial intelligence, healthy ageing or health digitisation. A Discovery Science initiative would see the country attract 2,000 new discovery scientists from around the globe over the next five years, raising R&D spending from 1.6 percent of GDP to 2.6 percent. And a Translational Science initiative would support a 50 percent increase in the number of clinical trials held in the UK over the next five years. Although the word ‘Brexit’ is barely mentioned in the report, Professor Bell has previously argued that freedom from the constraints of EU trial regulation could help with this.

When it comes to growth, the report makes it clear that the life sciences sector in the UK is already large, generating annual turnover of around £64 billion a year and employs around 233,000 people. It is also very productive, generating more per hour than pretty much any other industry. But again his ambitions are high. He wants the UK to create four companies with market capitalisation of over £20 billion over the next ten years. He also wants the country to develop more life science clusters, and use incentives, particularly R&D tax credits, to attract investors that might otherwise head for countries such as Germany or Singapore. One core aim would be to attract up to £3 billion in manufacturing investment into life sciences, preferably into newer technologies.

Next comes the NHS, whose structure gives it, as Professor Bell points out, “opportunities….that could not be realised in many insurance-based healthcare systems”. Some of these got a mention in the science section, which outlined some possible partnerships between the NHS and researchers. However Professor Bell’s main goal for the NHS is adoption of the Accelerated Access Review, allowing innovative treatments to get to patients more quickly, with better evaluation of outcomes. Related to this are his recommendations for his fourth theme: data. The NHS’s structure has long given the UK a chance to build up a national healthcare database that would inform both health provision and research. That is the long-term goal, but Professor Bell argues it should start with between two and five innovative regional data hubs.

Finally, Professor Bell tackled the subject of skills, where he is keen for the UK to plan its workforce needs better, using funds to create apprenticeships, management training and education programmes. This is also one of the areas where his recommendations are most closely linked to minimising the effects of Brexit. He is keen to see a migration system that will still allow the UK to access the best talent from around the world. Equally, in the small regulation section at the end of the report, he recommends keeping UK pharma regulations, including the drug approval system through the MHRA, in line with those in the EU.

The report has prompted an enthusiastic reception from the pharma industry. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry called it an “impressive document…that will provide confidence for global companies to invest in the UK during and beyond Brexit”.

Yet it is far from a done deal: the government will not make any decisions until later this autumn and will face plenty of other calls on its cash and its attention as Brexit looms. And while the government’s Science and Innovation Partnership Paper, released as part of its Brexit strategy less than two weeks later, mentioned the industrial strategy, there were some striking differences. The paper talks about a goal of raising R&D spending to 2.4 percent of GDP by 2027, for example, compared with Professor Bell’s “essential” target of 2.6 percent within the next five years.

There is, as Theresa May so infamously said, no magic money-tree. The goals and initiatives laid out in this industrial strategy are unlikely to get the full attention and money they deserve as the government grapples with the more immediate challenges posed by Brexit. Even so, by setting out clearly what could be possible for the life sciences sector if the funding, attention and sheer energy were available, the proposed industrial strategy puts down a challenge for the future, after Brexit.

Ana Nicholls is chief healthcare analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit