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20 July 2021updated 07 Sep 2021 1:47pm

We need ongoing investment in life sciences

Innovation is hampered by a lack of long-term focus and strategy

By Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah

The pandemic has demonstrated Britain’s strengths in life sciences to the world and, equally importantly, to Britain. The development, manufacture and delivery of the vaccine into so many arms did not happen by accident. It was thanks to sustained long-term investment under the previous Labour government, which set up the Office for Life Sciences and invested in successful institutes like the Centre for Process Innovation in the north-east, combined with attention and focus from the current government. Now I hope we will learn the lessons of that success and apply them more broadly to our biotech sector.

My background is in telecoms – I entered that sector as a graduate engineer in 1987 and I have seen it grow and become the basis for our global economy and our cultural, social and, often, educational lives. The pandemic has accelerated the migration online and we are all digital citizens now.

Today, the next big thing is often seen as being artificial intelligence (AI). It will impact how we live and work – for the better, I hope. But the real innovation may happen at the intersection of AI and other sectors, particularly biotech. The UK is fortunate in having great strengths in both. This could help us pioneer new ways to speed up the development of drugs, such as the Deepmind AI scientists who have cracked protein folding, which will make the development of antibody therapies easier, or the researchers who help us address climate change by modelling new biofuels.

Although the government certainly talks up science, and has committed to doubling science spend by the end of this parliament (after cutting it significantly from 2010 to 2015), its warm words on science have seldom been matched by deeds and the sector is hampered by a lack of long-term attention and focus.

The cuts by the government to overseas aid hit core science programmes, which benefit the globe, and the chaotically negotiated UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement disrupted scientific collaboration and raised costs to science-based businesses, increasing red tape, especially for Northern Ireland. The incredible truth is that many critical science bodies did not know their funding for this year until a few days before it started. Science needs long-term funding commitments but the government refuses to provide it.

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The Industrial Strategy seems to have been shelved, with decisions on science made piecemeal rather than strategically. Indeed, the government only recently announced a Science Council to give the direction to funding one would have hoped was already coming. So while I welcome the recently announced ten-year plan for the sector, I note that, critically, it is unfunded and follows two sector deals, an (abandoned) industrial strategy, various missions, and challenge funds. The government needs to stop making policy by press announcement and instead deliver on real change – like actually meeting its commitment to double dementia research, or ensuring that Covid-19 tests offered to NHS staff are manufactured in the UK.

Before the pandemic I visited pioneering biotechnology company Newcells Biotech, based in my Newcastle upon Tyne Central constituency and spun out from the University of Newcastle. It was great to meet a local start-up company with brilliant scientists working to address some very important health challenges with innovative bio techniques to transform the drug discovery process and reduce animal testing. Newcells was supported by local venture capital.

Labour wants to enable more successes like that. We would build on the UK’s science successes and ensure we continue to be an innovation nation, by spending 3 per cent of GDP on research and development. This target includes private sector investment “crowded in” by public money – Labour long understands the importance of policies that encourage this and it is why Gordon Brown introduced SME research and development tax credits.

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This is a no-brainer for the economy. The Campaign for Science and Engineering found that for every £1 invested by the government on research and development we get back 20p-30p each and every year. Research from King’s College London and Brunel University also showed that for every £1 invested in medical research we get back 25p to the economy each and every year.

The Labour Party would also champion universities as engines of regional progress, strengthening regional economies by strengthening research and development investment. Despite the government’s “levelling-up” pledge, compared with the south of England the north receives less than half of the life science investment per head, although it has great teaching hospitals and significant health inequalities.

Labour would also encourage continuous life-long learning and reskilling. This must be key to the Knowledge Exchange Framework (an important element of Research England’s benchmarking of universities) and will help ensure the transition to a green economy supports job creation and retention.

We should be proud that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is being distributed around the world at cost. But the Covid-19 crisis highlights that we need to do more to enhance capacity for developing and manufacturing medicines and improving global equitable access to affordable medicines, medical tools, diagnostics, treatments and vaccines to protect public health here and abroad.

The UK BioIndustry Association has pointed out that the lack of UK-based investors in larger funding rounds weakens the incentive for UK firms to remain and grow in the country, meaning jobs and economic activity are lost and UK science is commercialised elsewhere. Labour would work to make more investment available across our country. The Labour Party wants to ensure more is made, built and sold in the UK. Biotech is an important part of enabling that. 

Chi Onwurah is the shadow minister for science, research and digital