Issues affecting the global community have spurred innovation in the life sciences. Research in areas such as agricultural technology and virology can help address some of the challenges of climate change, which, according to Freeman, directly contributes to global instability. The big flashpoints of geopolitics in the next few years are likely to be around water, food, epidemics, energy.
And the industry has had other measurable results. The UK life sciences industry has grown from £63.5 billion in 2016 to £94.2 billion in 2021.
Guided by proven expertise and academic excellence.
With five of the world’s top five universities in the biological sciences – the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford – the UK has a strong base for investment in life science innovation. “We have deep science that you can’t buy off the shelf,” Freeman said.
As an example, Freeman points to the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which has shared 24 Nobel Prizes among its researchers in chemistry and medicine and physiology. In the field of chemistry, the MRC laboratory has more Nobel Prizes than the entire country of France. “Such laboratories do not appear suddenly. They’ve been built up by layers of great science over the years,” says Freeman.
The UK has long been home to a strong pharmaceutical industry. For example, GlaxoSmithKline can trace its history in the UK back to 1715 and now has nine manufacturing sites there. And AstraZeneca, founded in 1999 after a merger between British and Swedish companies, will establish its global headquarters in Cambridge. “We’ve had some big pharmaceutical companies here and they’ve stayed here,” commented Freeman, referring to the expertise this alone has created in the UK.
The National Health Service is at the forefront.
Another factor that has enabled the UK to become a leader in life sciences R&D is the National Health Service (NHS), one of the world’s first global health care systems. Dr. Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said, “If you’re going to be doing long, large-scale studies that follow patients over time with repeated follow-up on diseases, risk factors, or health outcomes, you need health care. A system to access all relevant information and remember patients.
Such studies, carried out by the NHS, have focused on long-term covid and cognitive problems in people over 50. “These studies are very relevant to the patient, scientists and clinicians,” Wilson said. However, institutions supporting life science R&D in the UK do not exist in a vacuum. “There’s a good history of collaboration across sectors,” says Wilson. “In the life sciences, there is a disconnect between academia, business, the NHS that helps our R&D be successful and deliver.”
Intentional collaboration for advanced research
This cooperation is supported by investments from both the government and the charity sector. One such philanthropic international health foundation, the Wellcome Trust, In early 2022, the UK will invest £16 billion over the next 10 years in four related life science sectors: discovery research, infectious disease, mental health and climate and health.