July 13, 2020 @ 10:39 by Richard Dawson
New analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reveals a stark North/South divide in life sciences investment.
Overall, the North of England receives £4 billion less per year in health research and development than the South, equivalent to £72 per head versus £168 per head respectively.
Public sector investment totalled £22 per head in the North, less than half the £56 invested in the South.
Investment by the private sector paints a similar picture, with £50 per head in the North dwarfed by £112 in the South.
The IPPR report argues that the inequality of life sciences funding is not compatible with the Government’s commitment to level up the UK economy.
It also highlights the significant opportunity offered by UK life sciences and welcomes Government plans to boost the sector.
There are, however, many challenges that need to be overcome before the UK can be a true ‘life science superpower’.
First is the fact that the UK has underinvested in R&D for decades – falling short of the OECD average by £222 billion since 1985.
The UK also struggles to link research activity to the health priorities of its people. The IPPR says that some conditions receive disproportionately little investment.
For example, cancer and mental illness have a similar level of impact on the nation’s health, yet R&D investment in cancer (£2 billion) is double that in mental health (£1 billion).
The UK’s R&D strategy is also not adequately prepared for future global health risks, something that has become markedly clear during the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 is part of a wider pattern of ‘health disruption’ that the UK should now be pre-empting, according to the IPPR.
The IPPR proposes a new national strategy to maximise investment and unleash potential right across the country.
Specific recommendations include a national deal of £14.5 billion per year for the life sciences from public, private and charity sources.
The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) body should also be reformed to ensure more public funding flows to other regions and parts of the North.
A greater emphasis on health resilience is also needed to tackle national health needs ignored by the market.
Chris Thomas, IPPR health fellow and lead author of the report, said: “Outside London and the South, the UK life science sector has huge potential. Yet, that potential is being limited by a serious inequality in R&D investment.
“If the Government is serious about making the UK a ‘science superpower’ it will need to invest in the whole country and support regions like the North to develop their own industrial strategies, in a more devolved way, to fulfil their potential.
“The benefits would be substantial. A more diverse and regionally equal approach to R&D would boost productivity; support a more equal economic recovery from Covid-19; and help build UK resilience to future health shocks.
“COVID-19 is proof of how important this is. Entering the next decade without a coherent and progressive health R&D strategy would be like building a house on a volcano and not taking out insurance.”