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Driving change

The new Office for Life Sciences, steered by Lord Drayson, promises joined-up thinking and speedy action in building the UK's global position in pharma

Dr Richard Barker, director general of the ABPI For a long time, pharmaceutical companies have wanted government to provide a more joined-up approach to the industry. It was a key request made by the industry when we met the Prime Minister four months ago and, with the creation of the Office for Life Sciences (OLS), I believe he has obliged.

Gordon Brown has asked Lord Drayson to head a new "virtual" office to co-ordinate a sector strategy and action plan. The goal of this new office is to ensure that life sciences emerges from the recession as a keystone in the UK's future industrial strategy. Financial and other value-added services have faltered, and government now wants to carve out an attractive future for Britain in knowledge-rich sectors such as life sciences, digital technology and low carbon products and services.

New strategy
Life sciences brings together bioscience, pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and devices, providing a more integrated approach, which is long overdue. The ABPI, BIA, ABHI and BIVDA organisations and their members are working in partnership on a new strategy that comprises four pillars.

The first pillar is to make the NHS a champion of innovation. Although this is a key ambition of Lord Darzi's NHS reforms, we all know that the day-to-day reality is still far removed from this – indeed, sometimes the combined efforts of NICE and the NHS' financial systems and clinical culture seem designed to frustrate the generation and adoption of innovation. As such, this pillar will consider how NICE should evolve to encourage innovation and value it more explicitly, how the NHS can be more active in trialling and adopting new medicines and technologies and how regulation can be streamlined to make the UK attractive.

My own participation in Ara Darzi's Health Innovation Council convinced me that the will is there to make these things happen, but more work is needed to design and implement policies, metrics and incentives that are pro-innovation.

The second pillar aims to create a more integrated life sciences sector, by catalysing the emergence of innovation clusters around major universities – clusters that, in time, can rival the Boston cluster in which I once worked. This workstream will also develop strategies to integrate both the "large pharma" and SME ends of the life sciences spectrum better.

Fiscal policies have played a major part in the emergence of several global competitors for the UK, eg Ireland in bioprocessing and Singapore in both R&D and manufacturing. The third pillar's work will focus on how the UK can improve the generation and retention of life sciences IP and how we can best address the critical funding gap that has emerged for bioscience SMEs as a consequence of the credit crunch. This workstream has some of the most urgent priorities, as these challenges jostle for attention with many other potential initiatives in the 2009 Budget.

The fourth pillar deals with how best to market the UK and make its world-renowned basic bioscience commercially competitive.

The working process
Each pillar has a chairperson from industry and a group of 10-12 senior players from a wide range of companies to review recommendations. The proposals themselves come from small sub-groups of experts, reinforced where necessary by business and tax consultants.

Groups also contain key agendas, such as the MHRA and NHS R&D. Of course, in many cases work was already underway as a result of the "innovation package" in the 2009 PPRS, or under the auspices of the Ministerial Industry Strategy Group (MISG). Here the OLS will only intervene to set clearer deadlines and monitor progress. In other areas, there is a clear gap between current policy and action and what is needed for a vibrant life science sector. New work will focus on these gaps.

The timetable is demanding; you will be glad to know the bulk of the OLS work needs to be completed in six months, with an interim review in the June MISG (now headed by Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson) and a report-back to the PM in the autumn. This puts real pressure on us all – the OLS team (drawn from several government departments), the trade associations and the companies. But urgent action is needed, if we are to retain, let alone build, the UK's global position in our sector.

I was pleased to see Paul Drayson's appointment for two reasons. First, because he comes from our sector, and second, because he races cars in his spare time. This says to me that he knows how to make the most of his commitment to the sector, and how to think and act at speed, which is just what the OLS needs.

The Author
Dr Richard Barker is director general of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
To comment on this article, email

20th May 2009


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