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Professor Lord Robert Mair on international collaboration post-Brexit at House of Lords debate

last modified Nov 05, 2018 11:32 AM
In a House of Lords debate about the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, Professor Lord Robert Mair brought focus to the need for international collaboration post-Brexit.

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During the debate on the Science and Technology Committee report, Life Sciences Industrial Strategy: Who’s Driving the Bus?,the Head of CSIC, Lord Mair, stressed the importance of access to international talent and entrepreneurial skills for the life science sector to flourish.

The debate, which took place at the House of Lords on 23 October, was opened by Lord Patel, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, who explained the significance of the life sciences sector to the UK economy; it is a global leader, high-tech, research-intensive, scientifically diverse and innovative, contributing more than £30 billion per year to the economy and employing more than 480,000 people.

Setting out the context of the debate, Lord Patel presented the Science and Technology Committee report as a “distillation of the views and evidence” received during the Committee’s enquiry that opened in July 2017. Following the government’s launch of the Life Sciences Sector Deal in December 2017, which forms part of the Industrial Strategy, the government-commissioned Life Sciences: Industrial Strategy report, by Professor Sir John Bell, was published in August 2017. The report, which identified the strengths and weaknesses in the system if the strategy was to be successful, called for a bolder approach from government funding and stated concern for the NHS and its role in the delivery of innovation and the life sciences industrial strategy.

Published in April 2018, the Science and Technology Committee’s report covered five main areas including: the challenges of implementing the strategy; the role of the NHS; the availability of finance for innovative companies, particularly those commercialising innovations; access to a skilled, trained workforce; and scientific excellence. Critical of the lack of a clear plan by government, the report made several recommendations, including the establishment of a statutory body to scrutinise, monitor and report regularly on how well the strategy is being implemented. The report also emphasised the importance of a skilled and well-trained workforce that includes scientists recruited from Europe and beyond and this theme was further explored during the wide-ranging debate.

Lord Mair, a member of the Committee, acknowledged the important contribution made by UK life sciences to the economy and health and well-being of society, stressing the significant role of researchers: “Modern medicine and healthcare rely heavily on science and engineering to deliver improved prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness. But above all, the continuing success of the life sciences depends crucially on its researchers.” He also highlighted the importance of entrepreneurship, as did the Bell report, calling for training at all levels to equip young scientists and engineers with the skills needed to establish and manage companies: “The UK’s world-leading academic research base provides an excellent source of new ideas and discoveries, the commercialisation of which is crucial in the context of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy. This requires successful entrepreneurship.”

The continuity of recruitment of international talent beyond Brexit was also the focus for Lord Mair’s speech, which pressed the need for an immigration policy that enables collaboration in the life sciences: “Our committee heard from many witnesses about the paramount importance of retaining the ability to recruit the very best researchers from around the world. Many businesses in the life sciences sector, and most universities and research establishments, rely on access to international talent from within and outside the EU. There is a real danger that this crucial access to international talent is now under threat. Research and innovation are increasingly global. Numerous witnesses from business and academia told our inquiry that freedom of movement within the EU has been an essential ingredient of the success of our life sciences sector. Without this freedom of movement, ambitions for our world-class life sciences industry will inevitably be curtailed.”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Lord Henley, responded to a number of points raised during the debate and assured the Lords that a full response would follow: “I give an assurance to all noble Lords who have spoken, whether or not they are members of the committee, that we will try to respond in due course to the points that have been made. In that regard, I praise and offer thanks in advance to officials in the Office for Life Sciences for all the work that I will be putting them through in providing me with responses.”