Over the last few months, the life sciences have barely been out of the news – with various announcements around companies setting up UK offices, Government funding announcements and discussions of how the life sciences will be key to driving productivity.
We’ve had a Green Paper, White Paper, Life Sciences Strategy and Sector Deal – it’s hard to keep up with all the announcements!
Since the release of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy this summer, laying out what needs to happen to ensure the long term success of the life sciences sector, I have been eagerly awaiting the sector deal announced earlier this week. This outlines an action plan from Government and industry, setting out how to actually deliver these key aims.
The deal includes some exciting new possibilities for UK science, but how does it compare to the recommendations set out in the strategy?
Funding for blue skies research
The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, written by Sir John Bell, called on the government to sustain and increase funding for basic ‘blue skies’ research in the UK, which is something we welcomed at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, having made the same recommendation ourselves. Basic research is essential to make the paradigm shifting discoveries that lead to future treatments.
It was encouraging to see the Government committing to increase UK funding for R&D to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027 in the Industrial Strategy White Paper. But the sector deal itself doesn’t give many examples of funding for basic research so we will need to see that how this gap is filled as further phases of the sector deal are announced.
Translational research – which helps turn scientific discoveries into useable products – has been a clear focus across the various strategies. While the translational fund proposed by Sir John Bell in the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy so far hasn’t been implemented, one thing the sector deal isn’t missing is opportunities for translating our discoveries and commercialising research.
In particular there has been a real focus on Big Data and the use of artificial intelligence, and how we can use these approaches to inform treatment, reduce costs and improve patient outcomes.
There was also a large funding commitment from both Government and industry towards a research programme called ‘data to early diagnostics and precision medicine’, with investments in genomics – including sequencing the UK Biobank and extending the cancer genome pathway.
This will allow the genomes of 50,000 cancer patients to be sequenced, particularly focusing on cancers with unmet need – unlocking a treasure trove of data that could be used to drive the development of future diagnostic tests and targeted treatments.
Download and read our factsheets where the ICR has outlined its position on a number of policy issues in scientific and medical research.
Another key theme to come out of the earlier strategies was the importance of collaborating with the NHS, placing it at the heart of future health innovation and involving it as an active partner in modernising trials, collecting real world data and reshaping clinical pathways.
It was heartening to see this translated into the new sector deal report – the NHS and its various constituent bodies are mentioned nearly 100 times.
The NHS will be at the centre of a number of Health Advanced Research Projects (HARPs) – where government, industry and healthcare providers will work together to produce innovative health technologies.
The deal also pledged £950 million investment in NHS infrastructure as part of a wider initiative to strengthen the UK environment for clinical trials. This, combined with pledges to speed up clinical trial approvals, will strengthen the already vital role the NHS plays in clinical research and bringing new treatments to patients faster.
Training the researchers of tomorrow
The sector deal also looked at how we can ensure that UK researchers have the skills needed to succeed in the future.
The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy had already proposed suggestions such as apprenticeships and cross-disciplinary sabbaticals to improve interdisciplinary research, but the sector deal goes a step further, including actions from both Government and industry to prioritised areas of need by employers such as bioinformatics.
These initiatives offer a range of great opportunities for young people but we still need to address the current areas of national skills shortages.
Ensuring that the life sciences are not adversely affected when Britain leaves the EU, both in terms of work force and regulation, has been a key feature of the discussions.
The ICR has recently joined a number of influential UK research and higher education bodies to call for government recognition of the importance of international technicians in delivering world-leading research.
While the government has previously outlined how it wishes to continue working with the EU in the future, the sector deal goes further in outlining exactly how we maintain a diverse workforce, pledging to change immigration rules to enable world leading scientists to settle in the UK after only three years, make it quicker for highly skilled students to apply to work in the UK, and reduce red tape when hiring international researchers.
What does all of this mean for research?
The sector deal contains a significant investment from both Government and industry, with a number of exciting opportunities arising from this. While it is great to the see these proactive commitments to ensure the UK research base remains strong, this is just the first wave of a number of deals and there are still some important issues left to resolve.
I look forward to seeing how this new approach will shape the future of health research and hope that it will not only help to build a better economy but also improve outcomes for people with cancer.
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