Can the life sciences sector help “level up” the UK?

By - Public Policy Projects
Can the life sciences sector help "level up" the UK?

At Conservative Party Conference 2021, Public Policy Projects brought together stakeholders to discuss the increasingly important role of UK life sciences in the government's leveling up agenda.

The UK has proven what can be achieved when disparate parts of the health and care ecosystem collaborate the fullest extent. Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic industry, academia, government, charities have worked with the NHS to streamline treatments and boost capacity to deal with the repeated surges of coronavirus.

In life sciences, this collaborative spirit culminated in the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

To build on these successes the UK Government released the UK Life Sciences Vision in July 2021. The document provides a ten-year strategy on how to create a thriving life sciences sector, tackling the major causes of death and disease.

As the worst effects of the pandemic continue to ease, and following the release of this new vision, the life sciences industry can be at the forefront of solving some of the biggest healthcare problems the UK.

Life sciences is a geo-independent industry and such offers huge employment and investment potential across the UK. In the context of the government's levelling up agenda, UK’s life sciences sector will play an increasingly important role in driving economic growth.

Investing outside of the golden triangle 

The golden triangle is the grouping of elite research universities located in the cities of Cambridge, London and Oxford in the South East of England. These Universities often are provided with the lion share of resources to undertake research and represent a globally enviable research base.

Chris Skidmore MP (pictured below) said: 

“The question of how to level-up the life sciences industry outside of the golden triangle is a question I gave thought to on both occasions that I was Minister of State for Universities, Research and Innovation.

My opinion is that we should not be devesting from the golden triangle, and should maintain funding and support to the existing leading universities. Instead, we should be looking at how we can raise up organisations and regions outside of the golden triangle. This can be achieved by using existing capacities to build future capabilities. We have a fantastic University network in the North stretching from Manchester to Newcastle, and we must prioritise investment within this network."


George Freeman MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation said:

“The key is not to make the golden triangle smaller because of the unfairness of the concentration, the key is to spread the opportunity around the country, one of my key missions is to grow the inwards investment internationally into our science base disproportionately so that we have a more balanced life sciences sector in the next five years. ” 

The role of clinical research trials 

"Every patient must be a research patient and every hospital must be a research hospital” 

In 2020, Public Policy Projects created the Clinical Research Coalition. Chaired by Baroness Nicola Blackwood, the coalition held a series of evidence sessions which led to the creation of 30 recommendations focussed on involving citizens in research, creating world-leading research organisations, improving data and digital innovation, supporting NHS organisations and staff and making the UK a global leader in clinical research.

The panel shared the sentiments of the coalition in that clinical research must be at the forefront of developing the UK into a life sciences superpower, and is a key area which can support the levelling up agenda.

Tim Sheppard, IQVIA (pictured below) said:

“Improving access to clinical trials is low-hanging fruit which can support the levelling up agenda. It is well known that hospital’s that have strong research agendas ensure better outcomes for patients. Unfortunately access to clinical trials is not equitable across the country, with a rural and urban split.

It is vital that wherever you live in the UK you have access to clinical trials. Additionally women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds have much poorer participation in clinical trials. An example of this is that 50 per cent of those who are diabetic are from south Asian backgrounds, but 90 per cent of those who participate in diabetes clinical trials are white British.

Clearly we must level up access to trials locally, to improve representation, but also outcomes. Additionally there is a clear economic argument as research shows that for every £1 spent on clinical trials, £26 per person, per year is returned to the economy. ”


Emlyn Samuel, Director of Policy, Cancer Research UK said: 

“Someone in London is 70 per cent more likely to be asked to become involved in research compared to those in Cheshire and Liverpool, which clearly needs attention to level-up access and outcomes across the country.

The capacity for health professionals to be involved in leading clinical trials is a key issue which blocks them from participating in research, sometimes having to take annual leave just to support research. This in turn impacts patient participation, and the ability to run trials. This is particularly an issue in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic where health professionals have even less capacity due to the need to tackle the patient backlog, caused by the pandemic.

This, among other reasons, is why recruitment to cancer studies remains about half of what they were before the pandemic."

George Freeman MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation said: 

“A benefit of the pandemic has been that the public have finally really understood what clinical trials are and the power they hold. I believe trials hold the key to levelling-up across the country.

I would love to see patient portals across the country, which enable the public to be part of a digital community that can take pride in the health of their region, but also expand the patient pool for clinical trials. This will reduce the time and cost of patient recruitment, making the opportunity of being involved in research something that is achievable for all.

Every patient must be a research patient and every hospital must be a research hospital. ” 


The need to manufacture vaccines quickly in order to tackle Covid-19 led to increased government investment into UK manufacturing capacity. This included a £100 million commitment to create a new state-of-the-art centre to scale up manufacturing for vaccines and gene therapies.

Richard Torbett, CEO, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (pictured below), said: 

“It is vital that we think about advanced manufacturing when we talk about levelling-up the UK.

We have over 200 companies undertaking contract manufacturing in the UK. The manufacturing of the Covid-19 vaccine is a fantastic example of manufacturing being at the forefront of providing opportunities to level-up areas of the UK, with manufacturing taking place in Livingstone, Wrexham, Darling, Durham, among other areas.

Although there are these good news stories, there are contracts we have lost to other countries, so it is vital we continue to become more competitive in this area."


George Freeman MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation said: 

“The Life Sciences Industry Strategies have been key in getting us to where we are now, with strong long-term foundations.

If we want to stop losing companies, and drive clusters and growth around the company, manufacturing is key. Building skills is essential in order to support clusters and map skills to sector so that the local population can see the pathway for them into these roles. ” 

The role of charities  

Charities in the UK contribute 41 per cent of all publicly-funded medical research on a yearly basis. These organisations have a huge amount of influence in where research, often at early stages, is placed in the UK.

Emlyn Samuel, Director of Policy, Cancer Research UK said: 

"The combination of private, public and charitable investment in UK life sciences is something that makes us unique. Charities spent £1.7bn on research in 2020, half of this spend is concentrated outside of the South East of England. Therefore, medical research charities are well placed to play into the levelling-up agenda, funding science in areas of unmet need and de-risking areas for the pharmaceutical industry. For example, Cancer Research UK fund science in 90 institutions in 40 towns/cities in the UK."

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