How can Government support life sciences better?

Last week, the Government announced an additional £17m windfall for life sciences as part of its Industrial Strategy, the latest demonstration of support for the sector.

The additional funding is split between new technology to enhance drug discovery, a new laboratory, and additional support for mental health treatment.

Fantastic news. Life sciences are by far the most productive sector in the UK, worth about £64bn a year to the UK economy, and it is right that it should get this level of attention.

But while this funding is welcome, we are still no closer to securing a Sector Deal or hearing any assurances on whether the forthcoming Autumn Budget will detail a sustained supply of Government funding for a sector which is subject to more regulation than any other.

Magic money tree

Onlookers from other important sectors such as AI, fintech, and clean energy may be disgruntledly viewing the Government’s support for life sciences as an unfairly large share of a limited pot of public money.

But ‘investing’ in life sciences is not just about cash handouts. As Sir John Bell’s recent review of the sector outlined, research organisations would also benefit from other measures such as facilitating collaboration between the NHS – an organisation with buying power like no other – and reducing the administrative burdens of medicines regulation by encouraging innovation in clinical research protocols.

Workforce workaround

Like these, there are some quick wins that the Government could look to in the meantime that could have a much bigger impact for a comparatively low cost.

For instance, a huge concern to life sciences industries of all sizes is the future of their workforce. Many organisations rely on non-British workers, partly because of the collaborative nature of R&D and partly because huge international companies have benefitted from the ability to transfer personnel according to need. Those that live and work here deserve official assurance that their rights will be protected in the future.

But more pertinently, we need to secure a robust pipeline of high-level talent for industries as highly skilled as life sciences. This can be achieved by simplifying the application and approval process for Tier 2 visas (i.e. those awarded to skilled workers) and removing or waiving the fee for not only applicants but their dependents.

Furthermore, the Government should seek to offset the depreciation in sterling – and therefore salaries – since the referendum result by offering support for researchers’ families to find schools, employment, and homes. Britain has an excellent infrastructure, stability, and quality of life on offer, which it should take care to promote in partner institutions worldwide.

Migration negotiation

Of course, with the Brexit talks currently in deadlock, this is far from a simple solution. Ensuring a steady supply of talent for Britain’s life sciences sector is tied to the outcomes of the wider migration negotiations – which is a politically sensitive issue with an electorate suspicious of a lenient immigration policy.

But there’s reason to be hopeful on the funding front nonetheless. The Conservative party’s attitude to ‘borrowing to invest’ may be experiencing a sea change. Why not take a similar outlook to Britain’s most dynamic sector?

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