Life sciences, the development of cutting-edge medical innovations in exciting areas like biotech and genomics, is one of the most successful sectors of the UK economy. The industry generates around £66 billion each year, is twice as productive as America’s equivalent and three times more productive than Germany’s. But we can do better still, and the NHS can play a vital role in driving Britain’s future prosperity in this area.
With the aim of making “the UK the best place in the world to invest in life sciences”, the launch of Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper in January was welcomed by many but the links between it and the health sector were, at best, implicit. Today, geneticist Sir John Bell publishes the Government’s specific strategy for life sciences. If this is to fulfil its potential, the NHS must be supported, encouraged and resourced to play its part.
There are four areas where action is required to make this happen.
First, it is essential that the right conditions are created to encourage NHS institutions to take part in research and innovation. A recent report by Sir Robert Naylor on NHS estates set out how NHS Trusts could be incentivised to realise additional value from their land, including by allowing the receipts of any sales to be retained locally. A similar approach could be pursued in research, with profits from discoveries shared by the NHS Trusts most heavily involved in collaborating on the development of breakthroughs. The health service can help industry evaluate and test products and adopt them at scale. Risks may be taken by Trusts but rewards shared with NHS institutions that contribute significantly to new treatments’ development and delivery.
At the same time industry and the NHS must embrace the digital future – and that means linking data between the different parts of the healthcare system. The UK’s comprehensive healthcare system could capture data, measure outcomes, and provide evidence that, in turn, could help industry market innovations across the world.
Secondly, we need a much less risk averse culture in which regulators and others at the centre are willing to support innovation. Many NHS leaders talk about a top-down “fear of failure” that prevents them from taking risks in terms of research-led, personalised care. We need a new message from the centre, signalling a greater willingness to support research.
Thirdly, if we are to retain and enhance the UK’s status as a world leader in life sciences, we will need to reflect seriously on wider investment in the health service. Too often research can be squeezed out when organisations are struggling with the day to day – the case for a fundamental review of funding is unanswerable and, without it, there are dangers to effective support for life sciences.
Finally we need to support and develop the vital relationship between our university teaching hospitals and their academic partners. Almost 20 per cent of England’s NHS Trusts are university hospital trusts, where academic, research, education and clinical work is inextricably linked. It is within university hospitals that much of the ground work takes place, and the success of the life sciences strategy will depend to a significant degree on the support of these Trusts and their partners. It is important that their voices are heard as the strategy is taken forward.
In many of our political debates about structures and processes, we tend to fight the last war, not anticipate the next one. Critically we underestimate the impact of science and technology. We must not do so now. The benefits of a greater focus on life sciences are unarguable. We need to take forward progress in key areas such as genomics and our understanding of the biology of ageing, and to use biomedical engineering to enable older people to live independently at home for longer.
A successful life sciences strategy can help us speed up the availability of new treatments, centralise and share knowledge and specialisms, better integrate trials, and address the key clinical research challenges. The real beneficiaries will be patients and taxpayers – creating a lasting partnership will help our citizens get better and get better off.
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