In the last decade, the UK pharmaceuticals industry has grown faster than any other sector of the economy, apart from finance and insurance, with an annual turnover of over £50 billion, says a new parliamentary publication.

The biopharmaceutical industry is, in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron, a "jewel in the crown" of the UK economy, according to the current issue of Science in Parliament (SIP), the journal of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

However, the UK "could tempt a lot more investment if we made more of our greatest assets - our talent for discovery and our NHS," Universities and Science Minister David Willetts writes in the journal.

"Government recognises that this is the key to ensuring that UK life sciences continue to contribute to sustainable UK growth," he adds.

Initiatives contained within the Life Sciences Strategy, launched last December, will help the NHS and research scientists to make good use of NHS data -  which, says Mr Willetts, is "more comprehensive than any other comparable health system in the world" - in order to drive further scientific breakthroughs. Ministers will also be consulting on an amendment to the NHS Constitution which, while protecting the right of an individual to opt out, would assume that data collected as part of NHS care could be used for approved research, with appropriate protection for patient confidentiality.

"It would also assume that patients are content to be approached about research studies for which they may be eligible, to enable them to decide whether they want a discussion about consenting to be involved," says Mr Willetts.

Also writing in SIP, Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, describes the consultation as a "huge step forward," pointing out that research charities have been calling "for many years" for greater access to patient data for research. 

The aim to make every NHS patient a willing research participant is absolutely the right one," says Sir Mark, but he warns: "if this aim is to be achieved, we must work together to ensure public trust is maintained. The press coverage immediately after the announcements suggests that this will not be an easy task."

Speaking at a parliamentary reception to launch the new issue of SIP, Bettina Fitt, general manager for UK and Ireland at GE Healthcare, called on government to create an environment where the public and private sector can work together and for an end to "pilotitis" - reluctance to roll out more widely innovations that have proved successful in one area - in the NHS.

The most important thing for the industry is that the government is consistent in its policies, added Lord Drayson, who served as Minister for Science and Innovation in the last Labour government. "Recognise that clarity is the most precious resource - it doesn't cost a penny and can deliver growth in jobs and the economy," he advised policymakers.

Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) told guests that the industry accounts for 60% of R&D spending in the UK and, he said, while the pharma research model is changing: "do not assume that it is declining - it is not."

The model is shifting from in-house discovery to one based on collaboration and partnership, said Mr Whitehead, and he told the reception: "this industry is not packing up and leaving the UK."