The seminal report for our sector ‘Bioscience 2015 – Improving National Health, Increasing National Wealth: A report by the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team’ was published a little over 12 years ago.

Better known to this day as “BigT” it was the first strategy document on UK life sciences by recent governments. As we start the year of its title I’ve reflected on the report over the break to see whether the UK has delivered the vision it outlined and what it can tell us about the coming year.

The central recommendations of the report remain relevant to this day:

  • Build a mutually advantageous collaboration between the NHS and industry for patient benefit through the creation of a National Clinical Trials Agency (NCTA). The NCTA, sponsored by the Department of Health (DH) in collaboration with Research Councils UK, should support excellence in clinical trials and clinical research within the NHS.
  • Create a public and regulatory environment supportive of innovation. This includes improving regulatory support for the development, approval and use of innovative medicines in the UK, through effective collaboration between industry, regulatory agencies and Government.
  • Ensure sufficient and appropriate funding is available. This includes supporting measures to improve the liquidity of bioscience companies, through adjusting pre-emption rights and corporate venturing, and investing in the ‘bridge’ between idea generation and commercial financing.
  • Build a strong bioprocessing sub-sector, through the creation of a network of bioprocessing centres of excellence across the UK. These centres would deliver skilled personnel, develop leading edge research and promote the UK as a target for inward investment.
  • Develop, attract and retain a high quality scientific and managerial talent base, through two new programmes to support dual, interdisciplinary education essential to the bioscience sector.

For those of you who want the full memory lane experience the full 130 page report is available here.

What strikes me most is that many of the issues identified then we still grapple with today. Many of the names who contributed to the report are still actively involved in the sector (although few are in the same roles as back then and several are now on the BIA board).

To me it feels as if many of the recommendations have been acted upon with some success:

  • We’ve seen great strides in the UK becoming an innovation ecosystem – with much closer working between pharma, biotech, academia and the medical research charities. But work remains to be done. Tech transfer remains an often-raised issue now, as it was then. Cooksey hoped to see the NHS become the hub of clinical trial work but failed to foresee the implications of the European Clinical Trials Directive.
  • On creating a public and regulatory environment supportive of innovation, I look at recent developments in terms of the EMA’s Adaptive Licensing (now renamed Adaptive Pathways) pilot and the UK’s Early Access to Medicines Scheme. Both are in place in 2015 but a real test will be to see how they compare to the speed and vibrancy of the FDA’s Breakthrough Designation process.
  • Schemes such as the evolving R&D tax credits, the Patent Box and the Biomedical Catalyst have all helped address the funding issue, but again here no-one foresaw the nuclear winter of no UK biotech IPOs, lasting seven long years until 2014.
  • It’s interesting to be reminded that bioprocessing was a key focus of that first report, and the vibrancy of the UK’s bioprocess community was evident at the bioProcessUK conference we held in Liverpool last November.

I suppose my own reflections on the report are twofold.

  1. Having a common vision helps. A long-term route map (even if it is updated with a new document every couple of years or so) is vital to keeping a coalition of different interests together when trying to tackle a tough challenge. Equally important is the perseverance and commitment of many people with different backgrounds and motivations.
  2. The report now seems too UK focused for what is obviously a global industry. I think we can all look back with some pride on the hard work done to move the UK sector forward since the Cooksey report but it’s important not to be complacent. Has the rest of the world moved faster and further on these issues than we have been able to here? So for me, the judgement of success is not only whether we have achieved something but whether we have done it in a time scale that keeps us globally competitive.

And at the very least I hope that by remembering and reviewing our policy heritage we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.

2015 will bring a General Election, a new government and with it policy uncertainty. The BIA on behalf of its members already has its manifesto of members’ issues, which we are sharing and discussing with all parties. The new generation of parliamentarians, policy- and decision-makers will be at different levels of understanding of the sector and its importance to the future health and wealth of the nation.

One thing is certain. The public finances are hard-pressed and the need for ongoing deficit reduction will lead to ever closer scrutiny of every pound of public spending.

Industrial strategy is now something politicians of all parties openly endorse (which is not something you’d have seen in the 90s). Any incoming government will be looking for evidence that investment has resulted in economic – and in our sector’s case, health – benefit.

To continue to win the argument for long term UK government support for our sector we must evidence the economic activity and progress that has been made in terms the Westminster world find compelling (new therapies exported, inward investment, jobs created), and we also need to ensure our argument is even more compelling than that of other sectors with emerging potential economic activity.

I am confident that we can do so, for three core reasons. The first is that our ecosystem, based on world-leading great science, is in the front rank globally of places where this industry of the future can flourish.

Second, UK government investment has been followed by investment from global players in our sector. This is evidenced by recent decisions like J&J placing their global innovation hub for Europe in London, AstraZeneca’s choice of Cambridge UK for its global headquarters, and the clustering of genomic businesses around the Sanger Institute. This is also why showing how the Biomedical Catalyst fund can be leveraged by private sector investment is so important for that funding stream, and why signs of UK-based investment from the City of London, like recent floats on AIM and the London Stock Exchange, are key indicators for us.

The final reason is that biotech is a long-term play, with great potential long-term benefits. The UK should continue and double down on its own investment in bioscience over the last decade. This notion is harder to run with politicians who – by the nature of their business – have to think in five-year cycles. That’s why the cross party support and understanding of the sector we’ve built up over the years remains vital, and why the challenge of continuing to advocate the importance of our important sector with the policy community remains such a key task in 2015 – one that we at the BIA look forward to with enthusiasm.

As we enter 2015, it was great to see the sector recognised in the New Year Honours list. Professor Sir John Bell was awarded a Knights Grand Cross (GBE) for services to Medicine, Medical Research and the UK Life Science Industry, and life sciences champion, Christopher Brinsmead, was awarded a CBE for his services to the UK Life Science Industry. Subhash Chaudhary, Director of Strategic Projects at BIA member FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, was awarded an MBE for services to Biotechnology Manufacture in North East England and Professor Sharon Peacock, University of Cambridge, was awarded for her services to Medical Microbiology. Dr Vicky Robinson, Chief Executive of the NC3Rs, and Trevor Richards, University of Cambridge, were also recognised for their contributions to animal welfare in research.

Happy New Year,

Steve