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How Britain can build a world-leading life sciences strategy


The UK is in the midst of a wide-ranging national industrial strategy which will influence the country’s future role in the global economy. The latest proposals look at the life sciences and healthcare sectors, perhaps the areas of this grand plan which will affect most people, including through the successful development – or otherwise – of the National Health Service.

Sir John Bell was asked to work on how the UK might exploit its existing strengths in life sciences. His report issues the strong recommendation that research and development (R&D) spending should rise from 1.6% of GDP to 2.6% over the next five years – putting the UK in the top quartile worldwide.

He also wants the UK to create two or three entirely new industries in the next decade, while increasing by 50% the number of clinical trials, and attracting capital investment for large and small manufacturing facilities. The plan is for the UK to end up with four life sciences and pharmaceutical firms with a market value of over £20 billion, attracting a host of world-class scientists into the country.

Quite how this can be achieved in a post-Brexit landscape is perhaps a matter for another day, but these aims will certainly require strong foundations on which to build.

Incorporating AI

One of the recommended actions refers to the use of artificial intelligence to transform pathology and medical imaging. This is a welcome advance from the 1970s when the British government cut funding for robotics and AI on the advice of Sir James Lighthill. My father Donald Michie led the Edinburgh group who were world-leaders along with John McCarthy’s team at Stanford. I recall at the time my dad wrote: “It was said there would be Lighthill, and there was darkness.”

So, 40 years later, we’ve moved on from a time when pioneers in the field were labelled by Lighthill as the “artificial intelligencia”. We will have to wait for details on how that lost time will be made up to achieve Bell’s targets.

The paper refers to a review of AI, but the broad industrial strategy lists just five priority sectors: life sciences; ultra low emission vehicles; industrial digitalisation; nuclear; and the creative industries. This makes it crucial that explicit plans are made for how AI and robotics – and other important sectors – will support these five priority areas.


Bell’s report highlights the importance of creating and sustaining hubs of activity, and life science clusters, as the UK seeks to develop manufacturing capacity. But building resilient regions across the country will require the drawing together of central, local, and regional government; and co-ordination in health, housing, and education policy alongside the industrial strategy.

The report cites Michael Porter’s work from more than 25 years ago for how this might be done, but the latest research and policy advice needs to be mobilised too.

Finance is key, of course, and the report recommends support for the UK Treasury’s attempts to tackle the root causes that affect the lack of long-term finance for innovative firms. For corporate global leaders to be built, this will be essential.

Specifically, the UK financial services sector doesn’t enjoy the sort of corporate diversity that other more successful economies do. In countries like Germany, publicly owned and mutually owned institutions operate alongside ones owned by shareholders – nationally, regionally and locally. The UK is still to achieve the pledge in the 2010 coalition agreement to boost corporate diversity in finance.

Money talks. Zoltan Gabor/shutterstock

Golden share

The report is keen that companies spun-out from the Health Advanced Research Programme – which will undertake large research projects to help create those entirely new industries – remain anchored in the UK. It suggests a “golden share” as a mechanism. This would mean the government retains one share with particular rights, such as a veto on moving abroad.

Nothing is said, however, of the corporate purpose, ownership or governance of such companies. These would clearly be “public goods”, and so a form of mutual ownership and governance – with employees, customers and other stakeholders being members – would make sense. Such structures would not only deliver appropriate incentives, but would help to ensure the organisations remained anchored in the UK.

None of Bell’s proposals will be possible unless education and training are deployed in support of the strategy’s aims. Flexibility will be crucial, along with lifelong learning. Britain should positively encourage retraining, and the taking on of new skills.

This means enabling people to study new topics at the same level as existing qualifications. But the UK only backs those sticking to their old subject, obtaining ever-higher qualifications. Those wanting to move on to new areas aren’t supported.

Back to school. Media Whale/Shutterstock


A grand collaboration is needed if the UK is to genuinely improve healthcare and outcomes. It will require that the problem of social care be solved, requiring proper coordination with local government. One positive recommendation in the report is to support healthy ageing, which would likewise require proper involvement from local government, as well as decisive action on the Dilnot Review, a 2011 report on social care which was effectively ignored by successive governments.

Life sciences by their nature require inter and multidisciplinary work, but this needs to become far more ambitious, to actively involve the social sciences in tackling big challenges. Bell looks to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – a government body to be launched next year – to increase interdisciplinary research, foster more effective working with industry, and support high-risk science.

The UK is rightly seen as a centre of excellence in research, and the life sciences industrial strategy is an attempt to make sure this translates into tangible success. To succeed will require government to do things it has previously baulked at – including implementing the Dilnot Review, delivering on the promise of greater corporate diversity in financial services, supporting lifelong learning and opportunities to re-skill, and restoring proper powers and funding to local and regional government.

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