Cash boost for life sciences but skills shortage stays

Industry leaders in the UK's pharmaceutical, tech and health sectors have reacted with enthusiasm – and no small amount of relief – following the government announcement of a £650 million 'war chest' to boost the nation's life sciences.

Cash boost for life sciences
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The Life Sci for Growth programme, unveiled by ministers in late May, came after a period of growing criticism of government policies affecting the sector. Leading pharma chiefs had been particularly damning about rising sales taxes on drugs to the NHS, saying the increases were undermining the government's own vision of making the UK a world leader in life sciences.
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A boost to UK research capacity

In February, the Financial Times reported that Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive, had said that drug makers should not be made to pay for the “explosion” of NHS costs, while US pharma groups Eli Lilly and AbbVie pulled out of the pricing agreement with the NHS.The Times reported recently: "The £94 billion life sciences industry is one of Britain's biggest and is seen by government as an engine of growth for a sluggish economy. The industry, however, has complained of bureaucracy, inertia and cultural resistance in an overstretched NHS after a collapse in medical research since Covid."Now all that might be on the verge of changing. Initiatives under the 'Life Sci for Growth' programme include £154 million for the construction of a new facility in Manchester to enable the UK Biobank – a pioneering genomics project – to quadruple its research capacity. Funds will also be available to enable the project's IT infrastructure to be upgraded.There will also be £121 million to speed up regulatory approval of commercial clinical trials. The government has accepted virtually all the recommendations of a review headed by Lord O'Shaughnessy, a former health minister, on overhauling clinical trials, including offering bonuses to GPs who recruit patients to take part.Up to £48 million of new money will also be available for scientific innovation to prepare for any future health emergencies. There will also be a £250 million fund to incentivise pension schemes to invest in promising science and tech firms.Additionally, ministers plan to amend planning regulations to free-up much-needed lab space and to improve the rail infrastructure between Oxford and Cambridge in a bid to attract more investment to the UK's 'science powerhouse' corridor.

‘A huge opportunity to be grasped’

Unveiling the package, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said: "Our life sciences sector employs over 280,000 people, makes £94 billion for the UK each year and produced the world’s first Covid vaccine. These are businesses that are growing our economy while having much wider benefits for our health – and this multi-million-pound investment will help them go even further."Dr Richard Torbett, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), described the new initiatives as government recognition of "the huge opportunity waiting to be grasped if the UK can unlock the economic potential of its life science industry".He added: "Lord O’Shaughnessy is right that making the UK an attractive destination for industry clinical trials requires regulatory reform, speedier study set-up and approvals, and improved access to data. Implementing his proposals, alongside these other announcements, can be a springboard to delivering on the UK’s ambition to be a science superpower and we now must press forward with delivery at pace."However, Dr Torbett added that improving research represented only one part of the equation. "To get innovative medicines to patients and fully capture the growth opportunity, we must also fix the commercial environment, and for that, we also look forward to agreeing with government to a new and improved voluntary scheme as soon as possible."Michael Young, co-founder of clinical trials company Lindus Health, described the new funding as "most welcome". “The UK should be a global life science superpower, discovering cutting-edge treatments that can save lives. But our country’s excellent R&D sector is being held back by an old-fashioned, analogue drug development industry that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1970s.“Poor-quality data and a lack of investment in trial infrastructure mean advances in treatments can take decades to actually reach patients. So, it is also encouraging to see the government respond to the call for better access to medical data."Mr Young said that to accelerate health innovation and make a real difference to patients – and to ensure the UK is a global leader and not "lagging behind" – the government must adhere to its commitment to modernise the drug development process "and bring it into the 21st century".Julian David, CEO of techUK, the nation's trade body for the technology sector, commented: "It is great to see recognition of the importance of the life sciences industry in achieving economic growth matched with funding and techUK welcomes the consolidation of strategies to provide clarity for industry and partners."The technology sector has a huge role to play in helping to deliver life sciences commitments. techUK represents hundreds of companies with innovations that can accelerate clinical trials, make better use of data for population health management, and ultimately achieve better health outcomes for citizens."The UK tech sector now adds over £150 billion to the UK economy every year, making it one the UK’s highest contributing sectors, and should be seen as integral to this strategy."The life sciences sector received a further boost at the beginning of June when German multinational Merck announced a $35 million investment in Scotland that will create about 500 new jobs by extending the company's existing drug safety and testing facilities in Glasgow and Stirling.Dirk Lange, head of life science services at Merck Life Science, said: “We remain committed to ensuring the safety of the world’s medicines through our state-of-the-art testing solutions for our customers around the world that drive new treatments. Since mid-2022, we have announced investments of more than €350 million in our global testing network to meet the growing demand for these services.”

Talent attraction – domestic and international solutions

However, there is one life sciences problem that all the extra investment from government and industry will not solve: the continuing shortage of skills and the need to attract overseas talent to the UK.ABPI has calculated that, with 6,000 businesses in the life sciences sector competing for highly skilled scientists, there will be in excess of 31,000 new jobs that will need to be filled by 2025. "Establishing a skills pipeline remains crucial for the pharmaceutical industry and we have been proactive about STEM skills and employability, helping students from a diverse range of backgrounds to make informed choices about fulfilling careers in a highly productive sector of the economy," says the organisation."We have also been clear about the need for the UK to develop a future immigration system that is needs-based, straightforward and rapid, and which facilitates the ease of movement for highly skilled talent in life sciences."In a report last winter, Jackie Penlington, managing associate at law firm Stevens & Bolton, wrote that, whilst there were now many different immigration categories, "it is questionable how useful many of them are to UK employers generally, and particularly to growth sectors such as life sciences".She added: "Sponsorship remains the most popular route by which to employ non-UK nationals. However, companies who sponsor individuals must budget for significant costs under the sponsorship system and ensure they are able to manage the administrative burden of the visa process and meeting their compliance obligations. Not all employers can or will want to bear this burden."Other categories, such as the High Potential Individual visa, are more limited in scope and only allow individuals to remain in the UK for up to two (or possibly three) years – which is less time than employers usually wish to retain employees for. Other routes, such as the Innovator category, contain criteria which are difficult to meet in practice."As the cost-of-living crisis rolls on [...], it remains to be seen how businesses and employers will adapt. Rather than simply trying to reduce net migration figures, we hope that the government will implement a more targeted approach towards helping UK businesses, including in key sectors such as life sciences, by providing more support within the immigration system."While the government insists its immigration door is open to "the brightest and best" from around the world, it seems that portal needs to be pushed open a little wider as far as the life sciences sector is concerned. 

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