Recent announcements indicate a renewed commitment to support British research and innovation. The Autumn Statement tagged up to £484 million funding to invest in the UK R&D sector. This investment, together with £113 million to fund research into four healthcare missions, a global research fund of £119 million and renewed support for the UK’s Catapult Network, offer a welcome boost to the UK life sciences industry.
Headwinds to growth
Since the publication of the 2021 Life Sciences Vision, the sector has remained at the heart of Government ambitions for the UK economy. Meanwhile, capital market investment remains constrained and the overall economic outlook is difficult. Specific issues around numbers of clinical trials being conducted in the UK (as reported by the ABPI in Rescuing Patient Access to Industry Clinical Trials in the UK’) and some adverse data around the competitiveness of the UK life sciences sector, discussed in the Board of Trade report: life sciences report, emphasise the need for continued backing and support.
Support for research institutions and universities
The UK continues to seek association with the major EU Programmes (Horizon, Copernicus, Euratom Research & Training and Fusion for Energy), as was envisaged by the EU/UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement of December 2020. However, disagreements between the UK and EU over implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement have had the knock-on effect of delaying UK association to the EU research programmes. Given the ongoing difficulties in reaching agreement, the Government’s November announcement and the transitional arrangements outlined in July are intended to provide comfort for research institutions and universities in the following ways.
Horizon Guarantee Scheme
Under proposed transitional arrangements announced in July, the Government outlined a plan (to be implemented at the point UK non-association is confirmed) to extend the Horizon Europe Guarantee scheme to both eligible evaluated and specified “in-flight” applications. The Guarantee currently provides support to eligible, successful UK applicants to continue their research, covering all eligible Horizon Europe calls that close on or before 31 March 2023. As of 31 October 2022, UKRI had issued grant offers of over £500 million for the Guarantee.
- £30 million Talent and Research Stabilisation Fund: this will offer targeted support to eligible universities and research organisations who have a track record in attracting direct talent-based funding from the EU, to help them retain talent and address vulnerabilities at a local level.
- £100 million Quality-Related (QR) funding for English universities with additional funding for the Devolved Administrations. This will complement the Talent and Research Stabilisation Fund to deliver a one-off boost to enable universities to strengthen research capabilities – for example, employing research staff, technicians or sustaining new areas of research.
- £200 million for UK Research Infrastructures including additional funding for the Devolved Administrations. This is intended to provide a one-off boost to the UK’s research infrastructure base. This includes the UKRI World Class Labs fund, enabling institutes and universities across the United Kingdom to invest in essential research equipment and sustain their excellent research base, as well as making funding available to the UK’s Public Sector Research Establishments to maintain their status as international centres of excellence.
- Additional funding is earmarked for the Fusion Industry Programme and Joint European Torus
Global research fund
Looking beyond Europe, a new global research fund to promote scientific collaboration between the UK and other R&D powerhouses like Japan has been announced. This would see an initial £119 million committed to support joint projects in target areas with one of the first collaborations in the field of neuroscience, neurodegenerative diseases and dementia.
Funding for the Catapult Network
The Autumn Statement confirmed enhanced funding for the UK’s Catapults Network. At £1.6 billion, this represents an increase of 35% for this nationwide network of nine technical support and connections hubs compared to the last five-year funding cycle.
The four healthcare missions
Following the successful COVID-19 Vaccine Taskforce project, a similar model is planned to address four key healthcare challenges facing the UK: cancer, obesity, mental health and addiction. Over £113 million will be available to fund research in these areas, with a view to improving health and saving NHS funds, as well as boosting innovative research.
Also promised are efforts to support rapid review of new cancer treatments through Project Orbis, faster agreement of purchasing deals for the NHS and a new Life Sciences Investment Envoy role to support investment by bridging the UK’s financial and life sciences industries.
Ongoing debate surrounds the issue of regulatory reform following Brexit. Earlier Government proposals for a swift review of retained EU law to identify changes that have the greatest potential to unlock growth in key growth industries have faced considerable push-back. Working towards international alignment rather than staying close to EU regulation may be the best outcome for UK life sciences, as shown in the approach to proposed medical device regulatory reform. Updating the rule book is likely to take longer than some would like, however.
While the challenges are substantial, consistent, targeted investment and well-designed regulatory reforms are likely to be the right approach to support innovation and drive growth for the life sciences sector.
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