Profound Brexit implications for the UK’s Life Science industry

Last week I was hoping to hear Liam Fox speak on ‘Maintaining the UK life sciences’ leading position’ at a Royal Society of Medicine symposium ‘Brexit; the Implications for the UK’s Life Science Industry’.

He cancelled (what an (un)surprise). The implications for academia, industry and the NHS are profound.

Already universities, research institutes and individual researchers are feeling the chill, particularly for long term EU grants.

The government says it will honour any EU funding to 2020, an easy promise as we will still be a member until 2019. They have failed to understand that new grants stretching out beyond 2020 are already being prepared and UK researchers are being excluded from these.

Almost overnight, we have gone from being preferred partners in the top tier of research, to pariahs, liabilities to the success of future funding applications. These are hugely competitive, and success or failure impacts not only on individual scientific careers, but on publications and the ranking of research institutions which in turn drives future funding and success. Individuals will suffer, and institutions wither.

What are we to tell all those 6th formers studying science? Of course, we will re-build, but it will take 20 years, and we shall lose a generation of scientists in the meantime – how do we measure that loss?

For industry too there are some serious challenges.

Most pharmaceutical companies don’t do basic bench science themselves anymore, it’s simply too high risk and too expensive. Instead, it’s done by universities and research institutes, and then companies cherry-pick the most promising leads to take forward, that approach makes the best business sense. For decades the UK has punched above it’s weight in this area, but that will no longer be the case when we are outsiders. The EU naturally prefers research done by EU institutions it makes translation much smoother.

The UK is host to the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which licences and regulates all new medical products, this institution will have to move when we leave, most probably to Denmark or Sweden.

UK pharmaceutical companies like GSK and AstraZeneca (AZ) are used to having the inside track for negotiations with the EMA, conveniently situated in central London and staffed in many cases by scientists they already know well and who have worked for them in the past. This close relationship enables them to get their products to a single European market of 500 million patients quickly and smoothly.

Post Brexit, new UK products will be relegated to the second tier whilst EU products are given priority. This will make developing innovative new medicines here less attractive. UK patients will have less opportunity to take part in clinical trials, and will have to wait years longer to get access to new medicines.

Of course big companies will survive, they will simply move their businesses elsewhere in the EU to stay at the front of the queue, it’s what their shareholders will demand. Thousands of highly skilled science and technology jobs will go. A UK market of only 60 million with a near monopoly purchaser (the NHS) demanding highly discounted prices, will simply not be a priority.

But what about all those small, innovative, one product companies on the various science parks of Britain? – For them any delay in reaching the market spells financial doom. They will go out of business or move abroad, that’s another few thousand highly skilled science jobs gone.

For the NHS, the primary concern will be loss of skilled European healthcare staff; about 50,000 doctors and more that 80,000 other health care workers.

Forget the 7day NHS, it’s an undeliverable, Conservative fantasyland.

* Catherine Royce is a retired medical doctor, Lib Dem activist, member of the Lib Dem Women Exec and ALDES member