No longer bound by anti-innovation EU regulation, the UK can lead the world in Life Sciences and the Bio-Economy

No longer bound by anti-innovation EU regulation, the UK can lead the world in Life Sciences and the Bio-Economy

Having spent fifteen years before coming to Parliament starting companies at the cutting-edge of biomedical innovation, and having served as the first ever Minister for Life Sciences at the Departments of Health and Business, I have seen first-hand the global potential of UK innovation and enterprise.

I voted Remain at the EU referendum because, on balance, I felt it was in the best interests of my constituents. However, I have always been a vocal critic of the way Brussels has approached regulation around science and innovation. That’s why in the last Parliament I wrote a report on EU Biotechnology Regulation with the Fresh Start Project and the think-tank Open Europe. The report warned of the growing trend towards ‘anti-science’ politics in Europe, and the risk of unscientific regulatory barriers jeopardising the UK’s crucial Life Science sector, and called for the UK to consider withdrawing from EU jurisdiction in bioscience unless the trend could be stopped.

As I highlighted in the report, the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ has had a hugely damaging effect on the EU Bioscience Economy over the last five years. Just as the genomic revolution has been starting to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture, the EU has been developing an increasingly hostile regulatory framework which has undermined Europe as a hub of biotechnology.

We should be in no doubt how game-changing the biotech revolution is. In cancer, as a result of breakthroughs in tumour genetics, we can now detect, prevent and eradicate cancer tumours in people who 20 years ago would have died. As a result of stem cell science we can now reverse blindness with one injection. And, as a result of genetic trait science (not ‘GM’), we can now produce disease-resistant crops like the blight-resistant potato which no longer requires 14 applications of toxic fungicide each season. These are stunning UK innovations. Which we could take global and commercialise.

But such progress has been held back for too long by anti-innovation EU regulation. This regulatory hostility to biotech has had its most serious impact in agricultural research, where the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF to announce their withdrawal from Europe in Agricultural Research and Development. That’s a €10 billion disinvestment Europe can ill afford.

As I warned the Commission at the time in a keynote speech as UK Minister for Life Sciences, unless the EU embraced greater flexibility for member states to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops, Europe risked being consigned to the slow lane of the global bio-economy.

Four years on, that warning remains just as relevant now. Across the board in agriculture and genetics, exciting emerging fields like ‘nutriceutricals’ and the use of genomic and clinical patient data in modern biomedical research, the EU has been heading in the wrong direction for decades. Or consider recent developments in the medical space. This convergence of technologies is transforming – even rendering obsolete – convenient traditional regulatory ‘silos’. We are now living in an age of ‘digital drugs’ like those developed by British start-up Proteus. Or the contact lens that monitors and maintains blood drug levels. Or the personalised algorithmic diagnostic on your watch that connects to an electronic health record and allows you or your doctor or an automated dispenser to release drugs from a sub-cutaneous embedded release device. All these developments invite further questions: how do the old silo regulatory classifications of ‘drug’, ‘device’, ‘diagnostic’ or ‘data’ apply?

In the 21st-century Life Science landscape, technologies are converging to render the old silos redundant. I would have preferred us to use this Parliament to lead reform from inside the EU with a referendum if we couldn’t. But Brexit offers us a unique opportunity to forge our own path, making sure we don’t miss out on the next Industrial Revolution, and the chance to pioneer the new technologies with the potential to help feed, fuel and heal the developing world.

So the task ahead of us is clear. In our trade talks, we need to be negotiating a smooth transition and avoiding a regulatory ‘cliff-edge’ that undermines investor confidence in the UK. But we must also start leading the way on creating a new regulatory framework for 21st-century innovation.

That’s why the transition question matters so much. We mustn’t let the debate on science and innovation be shaped by an ideological fight between Hard Brexiteer ideologues and Remainers: the ‘mods and rockers’ of Brexit. Instead, it needs to be framed by the needs of UK PLC and the industries on whom we all depend.

The question of regulatory alignment goes to the heart of this. There are three central issues.

First, it is clear that we mustn’t have a cliff-edge on day one. The planes need to land. Life-saving drugs need to be available. Food needs to be processed safely. Avoiding a cliff-edge must be our number one priority.

Second, we also need to be strategically clear that we – a modern Conservative Party with an ambitious vision for the 21st century, and for Britain as a crucible of technological leadership – will develop a British regulatory regime which is pro-innovation, pro-consumer, pro-transparency and on the side of innovation rather than cosy cartels of vested power and interest.

Third, we will pay a very real long-term cost if we don’t get this right. If we fail to negotiate short-term continuity and the freedom and terms to create a new regulatory framework, we will miss the opportunity to lead and shape the global bio-economy for decades to come. A once-in-a-generation chance to shape and benefit from globalisation and to maximise our leadership of Europe from outside, as we always used to.

If we get this right, we can make the UK the ‘Gateway Testbed’ for new 21st century technology and appropriate regulation, which the City can then finance to take global. Done properly, we could become the global capital for the research, development and financing of the innovations in the core markets of food, medicine and energy (the ‘science of life’) around the world. This really could be a win-win moment for the UK to become one of the world’s leading knowledge economies of 21st century agri-tech, med-tech, clean-tech and associated supply chains, supporting rapid development of the fastest-growing emerging markets.

That is the prize waiting for us if we get the question of regulatory alignment right and put innovation at the heart of our negotiating strategy. It is the duty of all of us, no matter how we voted during the referendum, to seize this moment. Future generations will not thank us if we fail.