Penny Owen

Making Brexit work for the life sciences sector

Like every sector of the UK economy, life sciences has been beset with uncertainty since the country voted to leave the European Union. Last week prime minister Theresa May finally gave us some clarity on her plans for Brexit, which will allow us to prepare for the future.

The PM’s comments that the UK will remain very strong in the fields of science, technology, innovation and research and development are very welcome.

Together with the pledge in last year’s Autumn Statement to boost R&D spending by £4.7bn (€5.4bn) between now and 2020, this should go some way to ensuring the UK maintains its scientific excellence.

Life sciences is a significant contributor to the UK economy, worth more than £60bn (€69.4bn) and supporting more than 220,000 jobs. We must see recognition of that in the Brexit negotiations.

One big concern for the sector is the role the UK will take in future regulation, especially in healthcare. The UK currently plays an important part in structuring the regulatory frameworks that govern the safety of drugs and devices.

Not influencing that in future could have a detrimental effect for the industry and on patient safety. If the regulatory systems diverge as we leave the single market parallel systems could emerge. That would add cost and complexity and inhibit new medicines and treatments finding their way to patients.

The main risk to life sciences in the UK is the future of collaboration. Currently much collaboration comes through Horizon 2020, the largest ever EU research and innovation programme. We need mechanisms like that to continue.

As long as the UK continues to have a strongly funded research base and continues to have strong scientific skills and expertise, people will want to collaborate with us.

The Life Sciences Hub Wales is the focal point of the vibrant and prosperous sector in Wales, bringing together academic, business, clinical and professional services and funding organisations.

We work to showcase Welsh life sciences globally, and we are determined that will continue despite Brexit.

Last summer we signed an international partnership agreement with four other sciences parks and clusters – LifeTechValley in Belgium, Sherbrooke Innopole in Canada, Medicon Village in Sweden and Inartis Foundation/Health Valley in Switzerland. The agreement will benefit each organisation’s members by helping with investments and strengthening their work in an international setting.

Life sciences is at the forefront of dealing with some of the world’s biggest challenges, for example in health, climate change and renewable energy.

It is clear that the sector has a global future and therefore requires a global outlook. We must continue to forge international partnerships and agreements like these, whatever the political circumstances.

The UK might be stepping back from the EU, but we can’t afford for our life sciences sector to step back from the world.

Dr Penny Owen is the interim executive chair of the Life Sciences Hub Wales