Daring to be great as we face Brexit

British Expats in Life Sciences (BELS) is engaging with British-trained health and life science leaders around the globe Brexit London In pursuit of greatness

With major changes afoot impacting our laws, regulations, trade and talent, discussions at the Summit will centre on the UK in a post-Brexit world and the significant work underway to position our sector as a centre of scientific excellence that attracts top talent and is less insular, more outward facing, a hotbed of healthcare innovation, with rich patient data, acting as a testbed for earlier adoption.

We had hoped the UK would be ready to share a vision for its health & life science sector with the BELS community in late 2017, but negotiations have dragged on longer than we could have anticipated.

Brexit proceeds in earnest

In March 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May finally signed the letter that triggered Article 50, formally starting the process that will lead to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. To some it seems to be taking place long after the historic vote, however the delay bought valuable time for our civil servants to prepare for what will be a fraught period of negotiation. Both sides have much to lose in this process but equally much to gain. Rhetoric on the EU front has varied widely from Jean-Claude Juncker’s hard-line stances to olive branches from EU members such as the German Finance Minister’s assertion that London should remain Europe’s financial centre, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator insisting he is determined to see a trade deal secured with the UK as soon as possible, and the Dutch calling for a unique and far-reaching trade agreement with Britain.

Our expectation is that cool heads and pragmatism will prevail. For the UK, the stakes are certainly high. Some Remainers retain a bearish outlook on the situation. Some pro-Brexit hardliners hold extreme stances on issues such as immigration; meanwhile there are increasing calls in the EU for better and fairer functioning of the free movement system. And we pragmatists believe that members of the EU have too much at stake to be dogmatic about making the UK suffer for leaving the EU, be it matters surrounding defence, where the UK plays such a major role, or trade where the UK has been an important partner to many for centuries.

Ahead of last year’s vote, the UK life science sector lobbied hard that it was better to Remain given all the risks associated with a messy divorce. After the vote, with an eye toward business prosperity, the sector swiftly pivoted to seek the undoubted opportunities that could flow from Brexit while ensuring that we remain a talent magnet to retain our position of scientific excellence. Judging by recent commentaries, we see a leap in confidence about the post-Brexit prospects for our industry. And, at the moment, the financial markets seem to be fairly calm about Brexit, perhaps because it has already been priced into the equation, particularly through the plummeting of the pound.

Poised for growth

Today’s optimism for the sector stems from an increasingly interventionist government that has the life sciences squarely in its crosshairs to support growth, global leadership and trade. Add into the mix a relaxation of some of the more cumbersome EU state aid rules and regulatory hurdles, and one can envisage an increasingly burgeoning global hub on a growth track to complement those in Silicon Valley and Boston.

Meanwhile, the US faces some dark clouds with the new administration, though it seems unfathomable that Donald Trump will achieve his proposed 20% cut in NIH funding given its important role in enabling US dominance of our industry. Although checks and balances built into the US political system should protect it from itself, this may represent a golden opportunity for the UK to leverage its impending newfound freedom with more flexible policies that can enable our industry to operate in the way that countries such as Singapore do.

While EU funding of UK science has been important to UK researchers (10% of the total into UK universities in 2013), Theresa May has stressed repeatedly that maintaining the UK’s scientific prowess is a high priority. This has been backed up by the autumn 2017 announcement of the  industrial strategy which highly prioritises the health and life science sector with plans to fund research to boost the UK economy, and the November 2016 launch of a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund with an extra £4.7 billion for applied research to be delivered in rising sums over the next four years. This represents a 23% increase in government R&D spending, the biggest rise since 1979. Building on this, in November 2017 government specified its intention to boost public spending on R&D further to £12.5 billion in 2021–22, an increase of £500 million on what is planned for the year before.

Better joined up

To better coordinate our research and innovation infrastructure, the six Medical Research Councils are being reorganised into one body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The innovation agency, Innovate UK, is becoming part of this single entity to help ensure that research with economic potential is commercialised. Sir Mark Walport willbecome UKRI’s new director in 2018, having previously led the Wellcome Trust and more recently acting as the government’s chief science adviser.

Patrick Valance, GSK’s ex-president of R&D, and Andrew Witty, GSK’s ex-CEO, have both agreed to accept governmental roles to help the UK at this challenging juncture.

  • Vallance is to replace Walport as the UK’s chief scientific adviser, advising the prime minister, her cabinet, and government departments dealing with the legal and regulatory consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Vallance will also lead the Government Office for Science which promotes the use of scientific evidence in policymaking across government.
  • Witty will lead the Accelerated Access Collaborative, a new fast-track route into the NHS intending to speed availability of select breakthrough medicines and technologies to patients by four years.

Strengthening connections with our global influencers

Wherever we live, in the UK or abroad, we are all part of a special United Kingdom of health and life scientists working to improve the health of patients around the world.

Never has there been a time when we needed to work more collaboratively. British Expats in Life Sciences (BELS) is playing an important role in strengthening connections with British-trained life scientists around the globe who are well disposed towards the UK. That is why we give this community of influencers a steady diet of UK health and life sciences news throughout the year. Monthly editions of BELS Brief Clips have proven to be hugely popular with members of the BELS community as they provide an efficient mechanism for keeping up with developments across this UK sector.

Our plans call for face-to-face engagement at the BELS Summit in London next year, kindly hosted by leading UK law firm Simmons & Simmons and by the global powerhouse Bloomberg. In addition to bringing attendees up to speed on some of the underlying strategies in the UK supporting critical, cutting-edge programmes and initiatives underway throughout the UK, we will devote one day to discussing how our sector (e.g. regulation, funding, finance, talent, etc.) will look in a post-Brexit world.

Invitations will be issued when there is greater clarity on Brexit and the way forward for our sector. We look forward to seeing many of you there!  In the meantime, we will continue disseminating news, conducting research to feed into policy and strategies for UK organisations, fulfill requests for connections, and seeking ways to strengthen our United Kingdom of health and life science leaders.

Supporting the work of BELS

To fund development and expansion of the BELS community and to strengthen relevant engagement activities, we rely on membership subscriptions and sponsoring partners. Such contributions cover production costs and efforts to expand the breadth and value of our work for the BELS community and the sector. If you’re an expat or other overseas alumni, please take a moment to join BELS today, if you haven’t already done so. And if you’re a UK organisation, please inquire about sponsorship and partnering opportunities.

As always, we welcome your comments, suggestions, support, referrals to others interested in BELS, requests for connections, and inquiries about how BELS can be of service.

Best regards,

Nigel Gaymond, Executive Chair & Founder, British Expats in Life Sciences (BELS)