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Last Thursday, we were delighted to take part in one of George Freeman MP’s first events as Life Sciences Minister, a panel discussion on economic regeneration and collaboration within the UK life sciences industry. See host Hanover’s blog on the event below.

Whilst so much focus is on whether Scotland will wave goodbye to the UK next week, Hanover’s event with new Life Sciences Minister George Freeman MP and a panel of experts from industry and academia yesterday concluded that the life sciences community at least is better together.

Alongside the new Minister was a panel comprised of:

Jonathan Emms – UK Country Manager, Pfizer and President, ABPI Steve Bates – CEO, BioIndustry Association Dr Eliot Forster – Executive Chair, MedCity Professor Ian Greer – Chair, Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) and Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, University of Liverpool

The event was chaired by Andrew Ward, Pharmaceutical correspondent at the Financial Times, before an audience of 50 from life sciences companies, health and research charities, and funding bodies.

Warmth towards the new Minister at one of his first public speeches was strong from both the panellists and the audience – all welcomed a Minister with such a strong sector pedigree into this newly created position.  George Freeman’s whole career demonstrates his personal commitment to the sector. He said one of his tasks was to demonstrate the value of the new Ministerial position so that the first Life Sciences Minister in the UK (indeed globally) was, in his own words, “not the last.”

There was wide debate across topics including the patient benefits of genomics and big data, ensuring clinical research funding delivers maximum impact, and on driving greater use of new treatments and innovations to NHS patients more quickly. The power of collaboration and partnership locally, regionally and nationally through the MedCity and NHSA initiatives as well as the Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) were seen as critical to delivering on these issues, and for continued economic growth in the face of international competition. As well as traditional rivals for investment in the US, Far East, or even Switzerland, it was noted that Paris is now setting up a life science initiative to mirror MedCity.  Steve Bates set out some of the different layers that define an effective cluster, which the UK has, from the coffee shop and canteen culture that facilitates the sharing of ideas, to the ability to attract and retain talent in a geography because people can move job without moving house.

Mr Freeman is clearly on a mission to make a difference in the short time he has before the next election.  He used this public platform to champion the role of MedCity, the NHSA, and AHSNs, and announced plans for a conference for all AHSNs to come together and share good practice and learnings. On data and research, he said the Government needs to “reboot” the care.data initiative by setting out more clearly why the benefits of research to patients are so powerful. One attendee described a scenario where a patient decides not to allow their anonymised data to be used for research but then puts money in a collection box for Cancer Research UK. The Minister and others agreed that in future the giving of data needs to be considered as valuable as giving money.

It was noted that there is a third life sciences cluster in the UK in the Glasgow to Edinburgh corridor of Scotland. One week away from the Scottish referendum, Mr Freeman did not miss an opportunity to say that this Scottish science corridor is more dependent on public sector funding than the two English clusters and receives £400m every year in central Government funding, an amount which “could not be justified” if Scotland left the UK.

Panellists and the audience used their opportunity with the Minister to explain how industry investment commitments on Research and Development in the UK were still not being matched by NHS use of new products, including NICE approved technologies, and ones discovered and developed in the UK. Panellists pointed to cultural behaviours in the NHS which focus primarily on cost containment and too often see innovation as an additional cost rather than an opportunity to reengineer and improve care in more efficient ways. One contributor put it most succinctly; “the road to innovation stops at NHS procurement”. George Freeman said that Government was very aware that financial incentives remain poorly aligned to incentivise innovation in the NHS and that this was being looked at. He also expressed a desire to establish a number of local heath innovation pilots in the NHS, probably involving the AHSNs, to showcase good examples of innovative practice.

The Minister will be judged on how he delivers against these issues, and rightly states that he can only do so much in the next nine months or so. For now he will know he has a community united in support and keen to accelerate the agenda with him.