Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now
  • Science & Technology

David Willetts: The importance of life sciences to health and wealth

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

14 June 2012

0 comments 0 comments

This is a guest post from David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science.

David Willetts

David Willetts describes the Government’s plans for life sciences

The UK life sciences sector touches on all our lives.

We all benefit from the development of knowledge and the discovery of new medicines and treatments for diseases.

In the UK, we are lucky to have a world-class life sciences sector, which looks to the future but also builds on an illustrious past of science and discovery.

This is also a sector which employs tens of thousands of people.

Government commitment

The life sciences are at the heart of this Government’s plans for sustainable economic recovery. Healthcare and Life Sciences was one of the first Growth Review areas launched in March 2011. One year on, Budget 2012 reported good progress is being made.

We also launched an exciting long-term Life Sciences Strategy. This has an ambitious vision of the UK as the global hub for life sciences. We are committed to early implementation and work to implement the strategy is in full swing. The Government’s work is being closely observed and, if necessary challenged, by two independent Life sciences Champions Professor Sir John Bell and Chris Brinsmead.

Significant early progress has already been made. For example, the Biomedical Catalyst, a £180 million programme over 3 years is now open for applications from innovative small-and medium-sized companies and academics to develop solutions to healthcare challenges.

International comparisons

The UK’s achievements and its reputation as a location of choice compare favourably on the world stage. For example:

  • A research team funded by Cancer Research UK have recently been recognised internationally. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) science award has been given to a team looking into new cancer drugs, the first non-US team to achieve this award
  • Two of the top five global pharmaceutical companies (GSK and AstraZeneca) have their headquarters in the UK. We also have global leaders in medical devices, Smiths Medical (part of the Smiths Group) and Smith & Nephew.
  • In 2010, UK medical biotech companies led Europe in the number of drugs in clinical development with over 20 per cent of the total.
  • The UK’s Research Base is highly regarded internationally with over 70 Nobel Prizes won by UK scientists, responsibility for 8 per cent of world publications and a 14 per cent global share of the most cited papers.
  • And, four of the top ten universities for clinical, pre-clinical and health research are located here in the UK.

The UK’s unique strengths

Another of the sector’s strength is its collaborative ecosystem. A thriving sector brings together a whole range of universities, industry, medical research charities and the world’s largest publicly funded healthcare system – the National Health Service (NHS).

Collectively this forms an ecosystem that is unrivalled anywhere else in the world.

This is the approach that we have taken with the development of the Francis Crick Institute which will open in 2015. This is an exciting and innovative collaboration between the Medical Research Council, three leading UK universities, the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK to establish a world class centre for biomedical research.

Cancer Research UK’s involvement with the Institute highlights the integral role of charities; collectively, they spend over £1billion on research each year.

But charities also provide more than this, they are also a forum and support framework for patients and their families – again Cancer Research UK is a great exemplar of this tradition.

That’s shown vividly by past entries in this blog, and I’m sure we all know or know of someone who has benefitted from the support network which this and other charities provide.

Key challenges and opportunities – medical research community

The UK life sciences sector is a strong force for scientific, economic and national wellbeing.

We are fortunate to have a thriving health and medical research community. But this strength should not make us complacent about working to maintain and build up our life sciences sector. The field is changing and developing rapidly and we need to work hard to keep ahead.

We need to continue to focus on excellent science as the bedrock of innovation for health, wealth and wellbeing in the UK. We need to strive for greater collaboration between sectors – industry, academia, charities and the NHS.

We also need to continue to ensure that the UK has the right regulation that supports innovation, for example in the use of stem cells and in the use of animals in research.

The admirable work of charities like Cancer Research UK highlights some of the really great research that is going on in this country. Thanks to work like this we are in a good position with our Life sciences sector, but we need to work together to ensure our continued record of achievement and success.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science