The political turmoil over recent days has meant that a speech last week by Sam Gyimah, minister for universities and science, hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Opening the Schrödinger Building in Oxford, Gyimah set out in the most comprehensive terms yet why the government has made the biggest increase in research spending for 40 years, and set a further ambitious target of investing 2.4% of GDP in research and development (R&D) by 2027 (up from roughly 1.7% now).
Although the venue inevitably invited a few Schrödinger-related gags about paradoxes in the government’s policies for science and Brexit, it was a meaty speech – the most substantive intervention by Gyimah since he inherited the brief from Jo Johnson at the start of 2018. He stressed the need to “take a long and serious look at the structure of our economy” in pursuit of “new sources of growth, and a vision of how to succeed.”
Arguing that post-Brexit, our innovation strategy should build on three traditional strengths of the British research system – openness (to ideas and to people), strong institutions, and enterprise – he emphasised the sheer scale of what’s required to hit that 2.4% GDP target over the next nine years:
The increase we are aiming for would represent the equivalent of four new Rolls-Royces, four new GSKs and four new Oxford Universities, together with making Manchester and Birmingham as R&D-intensive as the East of England. And a new Tech City for good measure. In short, it represents a transformation of the economy for the better.”
To reach the target, the government will need the private sector to play a huge role, and there are serious questions about how realistic this is, given the extent to which Brexit uncertainties are already having a chilling effect on business investment.
Gyimah’s mention of GSK also reminds us that the pharmaceutical industry has traditionally been a crucial source of innovation-led growth in the UK; it and AstraZeneca are the only two British companies in the world’s top-100 business investors in R&D. But how much can we rely on this sector to drive growth in the future? Far from growing, business R&D in the UK’s pharmaceutical sector has fallen by 20% since 2011.
In his speech, Gyimah showed an encouraging willingness to challenge some of the received wisdoms of UK science policy. He stressed – even to an Oxford audience – that “there is life outside the Golden Triangle [of Oxford, Cambridge and London elite universities]”, and said that he wanted to see far more investment in the Midlands and North-West of England – which runs counter to a trend of ever-greater R&D concentration in the South East over the past 30 years. And he expressed a willingness to revisit the balance of funding across the UK system: between regions, between institutions, and between basic and more applied research.
All of this is welcome. But does it go far enough? In a report published on Thursday by Nesta, the innovation foundation, we argue that the government and UKRI need to go further and faster in tackling the issue of balance across our research system.
More than anything, policymakers have to be willing to tackle the power and influence of the biomedical community in shaping research priorities and the allocation of resources.
Over the past 50 years, research in the biomedical sciences has been a great British success story. It has produced a remarkable body of knowledge with direct impact on people’s lives, through new medicines and improved health outcomes. It has underpinned the pharmaceutical industry, the UK’s leading knowledge-intensive sector. And it enjoys widespread public support, with around 11 million people donating to medical charities each month.
Globally, in excess of US$200bn is invested each year in biomedical research. In the UK, since the mid-2000s, there has been a substantial expansion of health related research as a fraction of overall public investment in R&D. This covers a range of disciplines and goals, but around half of all health-related research is in basic biomedical science. The share of overall research council spending accounted for by the Medical Research Council (MRC) has risen from 16% in 2004 to 24% in 2015 – a 75% increase in real terms. There have also been substantial uplifts in the volume of funding available from the Wellcome Trust and other charities.
A biomedical bubble has developed, which threatens to unbalance the UK’s research and innovation system, by crowding out the space and funding for alternative priorities. This is not a speculative bubble, as developed for tulips in the 1630s, or dotcoms in the early 2000s; there is far too much substance in the biomedical sciences for this. But it is a political and social bubble (similar to the Westminster bubble, or the “filter bubble”), in which supporters of biomedical science create reinforcing networks, feedback loops and commitments beyond anything that can be rationalised through cost-benefit analysis.
The biomedical bubble represents a risky bet on the continued success of the pharmaceutical industry, despite mounting evidence that this sector faces a deepening crisis of R&D productivity, and is cutting its own investment. And it favours a particular approach to the commercialisation of science, based on protectable intellectual property and venture capital based spinouts – despite the evidence that this model rarely works.
Our health and social care system is under growing strain, and as the NHS marks its 70th birthday, there is renewed debate about its long-term affordability. Too often, the biomedical bubble distracts attention and draws resources away from alternative ways of improving health outcomes – innovation in the physical, the digital, the social and the environmental domains. Only 5% of health research funding is spent on researching ways of preventing poor health. And more than half is spent in three cities – London, Oxford and Cambridge – despite variations in life expectancies of up to eight years across the country.
The distorting effects of the biomedical bubble are becoming more visible: in terms of corporate R&D and industrial strategy; health outcomes and inequalities; regional growth; and the long-term sustainability of the research and innovation system. After decades of success, the biomedical sector is in danger of becoming a case study in how research and innovation policy go wrong.
Now there is an opportunity to rethink and rebalance. A new £6.5 bn-a-year mega-funding agency UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), formally came into existence in April 2018, and is now charged with developing a roadmap towards the 2.4% GDP target. We now have the opportunity to design a system that delivers the research we need to meet the health needs of the nation, supports the new business opportunities of the future, and maximises the potential for economic growth right across the country.
For too long, the pharmaceutical sector and elite biomedical science has dominated policy thinking. Meanwhile much of the wider innovation needed for the NHS, public health and social care has been under-resourced. It’s time that the bubble was burst.