Brexit Impact on Life Science Research in UK and Europe.

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Published: 1 Sep 2016

The decision by the UK population to leave the European Union (EU) will have a dramatic impact not only on the UK but also on the rest of the EU.. In addition to the decision itself, there is concern within the EU that there are other countries with an increasing voice considering a similar course of action. The outcome of the exit negotiations will be followed closely by these groups to determine how favourable the exit might be for the UK and for this reason there is concern that the exit agreement might be punitive to prevent further exits. Such a belief was one of the arguments for the Remain groups and these groups, together with so called "independent experts", were prophesying economic disaster for the UK and a diminished global role for the UK.

The Life Science and Academic sectors were particularly adamant that it would be a disaster for UK science if the UK voted to leave the EU and they continue to express concern over the result. Some particular articles rightly express the worries on funding and practicalities of the future arrangements, for example relocation of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and other bodies. Perhaps the real concern, as with the financial markets, is that the future is unknown which is why the UK government has stated it will support funding out to 2020 for EU funded research projects initiated before September 2016. What is certain is that the dynamics of the Life Science markets will be different and the UK will find a way to continue as a leading force in Life Sciences R&D.

A particularly strong article voicing the doom laden scenario was that from Brian Smith in the July/August edition of Pharmaceutical Market Europe (page 12). The theme was expressed in evolutionary terms and that the Brexit decision is an evolutionary dead end that might lead to UK science taking the route of the Dodo! Adaptation is the key in this article with the argument being that it will be difficult for the UK research fraternity to adapt to change.

The actual nature of that change is not yet known but it will certainly be different, so that researchers brought up on the EU FP/Horizon 2020 programmes as the main source of funds might have to look elsewhere. I say might, since it depends on how the exit is negotiated: Israel is an active participant in Horizon 2020 and is an important contributor to the programme funding but is certainly not involved in Free Movement of EU citizens. In addition, there are resources from Innovate UK, Wellcome Trust and the many charities, such as Cancer UK, which will continue to support UK Life Science research. The UK position could also be compared with the investments into Malaysia and Singapore where the business conditions have been made attractive for R&D but have required importation of the skills. The UK has the advantage of having the skills in place and an attractive business environment with access to the North American market and no doubt will achieve a mutually workable agreement for access to EU markets. Darwinian evolution is often cited as being based on the survival of the fittest: while it is an element Smith is right that adaptation to the changing environment is even more important which has throughout history been a British attribute, even against the Luddites within it in the past and existing to this day.

A common thread with a further article, by Sean Milmo August edition of Pharmaceutical Technology Europe (page 8) emphasises the uncertainties. Without doubt the precise outcomes are unknown but already the catastrophic predictions of the Remain supporters are being confounded by an improved GDP growth, increased manufacturing, employment increases and important consumer confidence that Armageddon has not arrived.

Where the concerns as raised by Milmo are important are indicating the fine detail that the politicians need to address. For the Pharmaceutical industry the changes required will affect the MHRA and EMA interface but the skills and advice of the UK staff will still be available to help develop the acceptable procedures for the European markets. It might increase the work required to access individual country markets but in the end will be no more than that required to enter the US, Australian or Chinese markets. The companies will adapt to the changed circumstance: analogies with Norway or Switzerland are useful but perhaps the effort needs to be more on how can the UK Pharma industry adapt and develop its own interaction model with the EU. It will be necessary for Industry to help the politicians with realistic options to secure the best possible deals for the UK as distinct from the hope that by bleating about Brexit it might be reversed.

There will be up to two years of negotiation once Article 50 is invoked and the focus during the rest of this year should be to have various options developed that can be immediately brought into the negotiations. The various trade bodies need to accept the Brexit decision and adapt themselves to the new environment and find the effective ways to evolve into a viable new species for the future, perhaps even recalling how the UK became a scientific leader before the EU came into existence.