Warming to the Notion of Brexit


I vividly remember waking up June 24th to the astounding news that the Leave vote had prevailed on the EU Referendum.  There followed some wailing and gnashing (in the interests of disclosure I had voted Remain) before my customary shrug of the shoulders as I soon came to terms with a changed reality.  To quote the brilliant and messianic coach of the New England Patriots (American football), Bill Belichick, “It is what it is”.  As is my wont, I quickly chose to start looking at the opportunities Brexit might represent.

In the recent aftermath of the vote, we restated the fundamental enduring strength of the UK health and life science scene and promised to monitor developments.  Several weeks on, we find that Brexit has become the mother of all excuses for many current business challenges, but we see no sign of an impending apocalypse.  While the jury is still out, the early returns on Theresa May are quite positive.  Where there was an expectation of a several-month process to elect a new leader, the gears turned at warp speed with May’s anointment as the new leader of her party and thus as the new Prime Minister.  She wasted no time setting out her stall with a series of Cabinet and Ministerial choices that were inclusive of all sides of the Brexit debate (Leave, Remain and Ambivalent), swift in excising elements of the old regime (George Osborne, Michael Gove, etc.) and almost counter-intuitive (Boris Johnson).

Key Ministries for the Life Sciences

  • Jeremy Hunt remains as Secretary of State for Health; and two key Permanent Undersecretaries tending to the life sciences are Lord Prior (life science industry strategy, accelerated access, a successful Brexit, biopharma/medtech) and Nicola Blackwood (genomics, data and digital health, emerging healthtech).
  • Greg Clark, a former Science Minister, has become the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS); and Jo Johnson is serving as Minister for Universities and Science which includes the life science industry strategy.
  • The loss of George Freeman MP as the Life Sciences Minister may hurt from a PR point of view globally since a dedicated Minister for Life Sciences was such a unique position on the world stage. However, his former brief has been divvied up between other able ministers, notably Prior, Blackwood and Johnson, while Freeman has been seemingly elevated to a major policy position with the Cabinet Office which could end up being a good thing for the industry in terms of representing our agenda.

Continued Concerns
Since the June referendum, the scientific community continues to worry about the impact of Brexit, particularly in terms of how European funding will be impacted.  There have been concerns expressed over future funding and collaborations with other European groups coming under threat, though this is still largely anecdotal to date.  UK academics have presented their asks to the government on issues such as mobility, collaboration, resources and regulation, with a plea that they they safeguard UK assets, ensure that overseas talent can remain here in the UK and that UK talent can continue to work in the EU, and allocate funding to promote international collaboration.

Good News
Contrary to the negative rhetoric of the Remain side before the Referendum, there has been a slew of positive developments.

  • GSK announced a further £275 million investment in the UK
  • AstraZeneca opined that it was “harder to find a better place in the world” for research
  • Siemens announced it was maintaining its major presence in the UK
  • The Deutche Bourse / London Stock Exchange merger went ahead
  • Wells Fargo announced a £300 million investment in its new European HQ in the UK
  • Japan’s SoftBank forked over £24.3.billion to acquire ARM
  • UK stocks became the best performers in Europe
  • UK exports have been growing at a world leading pace for the first time in a decade helped by the falling pound (probably needing a correction anyway) which has also resulted in a surge in tourism to the UK
  • Startups have been launching at a higher rate than before the Referendum
  • And there seems to be great interest from a number of countries across the globe in lining up trade deals with the UK after having endured the protectionist and concensus-driven approaches of the EU.

What’s Next?
Notwithstanding that there will be some fallout from leaving the EU, the reality is that the UK will remain an EU Member for at least two plus years from when Article 50 is enacted, so in the near term there will be a certain sense of business as usual.  Going forward, the downsides of reduced EU access may well be offset by the freedoms to set our own financial rules and regain sovereign control of government grant-making with our own taxes.  The UK may be able to escape the shackles of grim directives such as the Clinical Trials Directive, the Working Time Directive, lax EU medical language requirements and poor standards for clinical instruments, while also having the freedom to recruit the finest minds across the planet.

The gloom that gripped me briefly upon learning the result of the Referendum has dissipated, as befits a person for whom the glass is typically half full.  We will continue to monitor developments and keep the BELS community apprised, but from our vantage point in London, we remain extremely bullish about the UK itself and the life science scene here specifically.

Nigel Gaymond
Executive Chairman, British Expats in Life Sciences