The United Kingdom has been a hub for scientific progression for centuries globally. This, despite its relatively small population and the dismantling of what was once an empire that spanned the world, sharing knowledge. While globalisation allows for the passing of information at a scale unheard of before now, the UK continues to ambitiously progress in the area of the principle Life Sciences.
Despite the complications caused economically to the country, firstly by Brexit and then by the Coronavirus pandemic, there is little sign of this progression ceasing anytime soon. In July 2021 the British Government set out the clearest pathway in the sector for generations, with a defined plan for the progression of its impact and development in Life Science for the next decade.
From the offset there seems to be a British advantage. Not only did the UK lead the development of one of the world’s most used Coronavirus vaccines, but this was also manufactured at a timescale previously thought impossible. While it could seem distasteful to consider, the Life Science sector will in fact likely benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic, with this latest vision looking to use that momentum to its advantage.
The UK’s vision is surprisingly ambitious and specific, with numerous areas set out for development and acknowledgement of issues that may hinder the end goal of continuing to be a leader in Life Science.
Highlighting Set Backs
Innovation sadly costs money, and for investors pouring capital into Life Science businesses that can seem like a volatile risk. Throughout the UK’s Life Science vision the use of the USA as a comparative party is common, and when it comes to private investment they are far ahead of their British rivals. Some say that this is a cultural factor, not a financial one, in that US investors are more willing to take risks on businesses that are high risk and high reward. Compared to the typical UK investor who are largely more risk averse and the effect on Life Science startups is apparent. Compounded with other factors lead to the UK’s 62% growth in the sector outpaced hugely by the US 200% increase in investment in the same period.
To support the growth in private investment the UK announced a dedicated Life Sciences Investment Programme. This fund of up to £600 million intends to help incentivise a new array of Life Science investors with considerable support provided in a single place for the first time for the sector. This in addition to further expert support to keep businesses protected, with access to specialists in areas like Life Science Insurance crucial to supporting growth.
One fledgling area that has been left without a defined path is the UK’s poor record in export of medical and pharmaceutical products. Given the continued uncertainty around Brexit it’s no surprise to see it as the weakest part of the country’s Life Science offering. With uncertainty still present years down the line despite repeated promises of ‘normality’ this long term instability has led the UK to be among the lowest performers in exporting and not likely to change massively in the next few years.
Belated trade deals with territories such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan all give some cause for hope in this regard. As such come the end of this 10 year plan the UK may be in a better place than currently, although that isn’t saying much.
Setting Out Crucial Areas of Innovation
Often government plans are full of vague promises and no direct vision. It’s a pleasant surprise that the outline by the UK has been surprisingly forthcoming with areas that are perceived as requiring principal attention. This will also likely be reflected in how the Life Sciences Investment Programme is utilised.
The main areas for innovations are:
- Increasing speed of research into dementia treatments
- Continue to produce early diagnosis and treatments, particularly within cancer patients
- Maintain the UK’s standing as a leader in vaccine development and manufacturing
- Treatment of cardiovascular diseases, including preventative measures for risk factors such as obesity
- Reduce mortality from respiratory diseases
- Examine the biology of ageing
- Increase understanding of mental health conditions
Filling The Skills Gap
Given the current level of growth in the Life Science industry there is an immediate challenge that cannot be resolved over night. The majority of roles being created through the increased demand require specialist training, which education currently isn’t able to fill.
More recently this staff shortage also contributed to the supply chain issues that affected the pharmaceutical industry in the last year. Based on the ambitious 10 year plan, the UK government estimates that there will be an additional 130,000 jobs in Life Science come 2030. Filling these positions may be the greatest challenge of all.
Principally the loosening of work visa restrictions on qualified migrant workers will help immeasurably. Originally implemented as more of a short fall cover for the NHS, this policy will mean that ready made workers can more easily access right to work in the UK.
More key to longer term employment is the use of apprenticeships to provide inexperienced university graduates with the required higher education qualifications. As a sector Life Science uses a number of apprentices that is much lower than the national average. Outset by the Government is a goal to vastly increase this number and far surpass the national average by 2030. Furthermore, there are plans to adopt Life Science into the Skills Value Chain approach that is currently being used by the manufacturing industry, which involves supporting perceived future necessary skills that may be needed in a role before they are essential. All too often the work on this is reactionary so this progression is likely to be positive if this trial stems across to Life Science.
Uptake in revenue within the sector is already looking positive, with figures from the Bioindustry Association recent data showing great progress in the first half of 2021. In total the first six months of this year returned £2.39bn in private capital. Compare this to the £2.81bn in the entirety of 2020 and the UK is on course to eclipse what was a record-breaking year.