Industry puts building Big Biotechs, attracting 2,000 Big Pharma discovery scientists on wish list for U.K. government

London Westminster Bridge
Westminster Bridge, London

The United Kingdom life sciences sector has called for (PDF) the government to make changes that help grow Big Biotechs and attract thousands of researchers. Industry leaders put together the wish list to influence an upcoming deal between the sector and an increasingly interventionist government.  

John Bell of the University of Oxford wrote the government-commissioned report in consultation with representatives of the life sciences sector. The result is an ambitious list of goals and sketches about how to achieve them. Having worked closely with members of the government while drafting the report, Bell expects most of the recommendations to be accepted, the Financial Times reported. Achieving the goals these recommendations are intended to enable will be harder, though. 

The report takes aim at and seeks to address many of the long-standing shortcomings of the U.K. life sciences sector. One such perceived issue is the lack of mid-sized biotechs. The U.K. has two drugmakers with market caps upward of £50 billion ($65 billion), a sea of promising R&D-stage biotechs and little in between. Bell wants to bridge the gap. 

Specifically, Bell wants the government to help grow four companies with market caps north of £20 billion over the next decade. The report is better at identifying the problem than the fix, however. Ideas floated by Bell include “enabling or leveraging larger capital pools” and “other fiscal interventions ... including manufacturing support, local growth support and extension of R&D tax credits.” The report suggested state aid rules bar direct loans, although members of the industry have previously talked up the potential for Brexit to free the U.K. from those restrictions.  

Hitting the Big Biotech-building goal would help the industry meet another of its targets, namely the creation of 10,000 new jobs at emerging companies. Bell wants the government and industry to work toward this target while also persuading Big Pharma to create 2,000 new discovery posts over the next five years, partly reversing the job cuts of the past decade. The report called for the government to attract these jobs by putting more money into basic science.

Bell foresees the new discovery scientists coming “from around the globe.” This aspiration could clash with the government’s long-held, but never seriously pursued, goal of cutting net migration to below 100,000 and the home secretary’s belief that foreign workers should not take jobs “British people should do.”

The report detailed the life science sector’s opposition to migration policies that stop it hiring talent from around the world and easily making intra-company transfers. These topics will come to a head over the coming years as the U.K. exits the European Union, the freedom of movement rules which allow British companies to hoover up talent from across the continent. 

The success, or otherwise, of Brexit will affect the U.K.’s ability to realize some of the report’s goals. Yet the 75-page report, which likely wouldn’t exist if the U.K. had voted to remain, uses the word “Brexit” twice. The report’s deepest dive into Brexit covers ensuring the supply of talent.

Acknowledging “Brexit could lead to some loss of talent from the sector,” the report calls for the government to co-fund a program to “attract up to 100 world-class scientists to the U.K.” Bell sees the funding covering the cost of recruiting the scientists and their science budgets for the next decade. 

Headwinds to this plan include the potential deterioration of the desirability of the U.K. as a place to do science if it is cut off from the collaborative EU projects. There is also the question of whether hiring 100 top scientists will offset the flow of researchers going the other way. This week, the head of University College London said headhunters have approached 95% of its senior researchers who were born on mainland Europe. 

Other topics addressed in the report include drug regulation post-Brexit, plans to increase the number of clinical trials by 50% in five years and the little matter of creating two to three “entirely new industries” over the coming decade.