Collaboration is the UK’s answer to ensuring its future competitiveness in the biomedical arena, a new report suggests.

The report published by NESTA – National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – noted that the UK has significant assets in the NHS, research universities, larger medical charities, pharmaceutical companies and clusters of smaller companies but that these need to deliver more by being better connected.

“Collaboration allows a better use of resources, avoiding duplication and improving access to specialist facilities and expertise. Most importantly, collaboration improves the capacity for innovation, which is critical at a time when the industry’s R&D productivity rates continue to fall as pharma increasingly looks to external partners for its drug discovery,” the report said.

For example, the report found that comparisons with seven different countries showed that published collaborations between pharma and academic institutions had more of an impact than papers that were published by industry or academia alone (except in Finland). 

“There is a danger that the UK will remain static while other countries grow and overtake us as a competitive destination for research and investment,” the report warned, citing new data that shows the UK now enrols less than 2% of global patients in Phase II trials.

“The UK risks acquiring a reputation as a place where it is not worth attempting to run a clinical trial, with consequent impacts on research investment and on opportunities for healthcare.”

Professor Stephen Smith, chief executive of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and Pro-rector (Health), Imperial College London, described the UK as a “duck” – “serene on the surface but with a lot of paddling under the water”.

“Research is about the creation of new knowledge. When it comes to research we’re good. Innovation is the use of that knowledge to create products. There’s plenty of research support but what there isn’t is the strong support for delivery in the innovation space to make it attractive for the industry… It’s very important we don’t destroy the wealth creating part of healthcare service and we need the infrastructure to compete with the rest of the world.”

The report recommends that: the UK should accelerate the development of electronic patient records to support medical research and aim to become the world leader; funders and public institutions should prioritise opportunities to share resources and services; the VAT system should be reformed to encourage rather than prevent research collaboration; and funders and career structures should increase their focus in research support services to expand the capacity of researchers. The report also calls for a variety of other actions around talent retention, funding and intellectual property policies.