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British politics

Britain can become a science superpower

Life sciences: viewed with suspicion in Whitehall. Getty

The UK “has everything it needs” to be a 21st-century life sciences superpower, says Kate Bingham in the FT. We had a “glimpse of the future” earlier this month, when the government announced it was partnering with Germany’s BioNTech to trial “potentially game-changing” cancer treatments that could protect patients from cancer the way mRNA vaccines protect them from Covid. We had another when the US pharma firm Grail recruited 140,000 British patients to trial a blood test to detect cancer early. If these bets pay off, they will “change the whole landscape of how cancer is diagnosed and treated”, improving millions of lives and saving the NHS untold billions.

These foreign companies see the UK as a “destination for innovation” for two reasons: we have a world-class academic sector, and the unrivalled size of the NHS gives it a unique ability to recruit thousands of diverse patients for clinical trials. These factors make Britain “ideally placed to become a global leader of a new age in precision medicine”. But reaching this exciting future will require a major rethink in Whitehall. Despite the astonishing success of our life sciences companies, the sector is still an object of “suspicion and incomprehension” within parts of government. The irony is that solving short-term problems like NHS backlogs is done by solving long-term problems like inventing new drugs to keep people out of hospitals. “Seizing that opportunity requires real expertise, genuine partnership and a remorseless focus on the long term.”