Life science strategy should not wear Covid-tinted goggles

7 July 2021

Focusing policy on medicine would miss huge opportunities in other fields, says Earlham Institute Director Professor Neil Hall.

There can be no doubt about the remarkable way the UK’s scientific community has risen to the challenge of a global health crisis. The pace of vaccine development and the ability to monitor variants provided by unrivalled genomics capabilities have showcased the best of British science.

This is thanks in part to the government’s support of the life sciences, with the recognition that long-term funding across a broad spectrum of research fosters an environment for world-class science.

Such cultures and reputations take a long time to build, but only a few moments to break. And that’s a risk if, as many fear, the government’s anticipated update of its life sciences strategy focuses solely on health-related research.

Ministers may feel under pressure to harness the momentum of the vaccine programme. But rushing through a blinkered strategy would bypass crucial opportunities and threaten nascent areas of UK life science, not to mention biology, botany, zoology, microbiology, physiology, biochemistry, and a range of related subjects.

The concern is frustratingly familiar. A narrow view of life science as synonymous with medical science was an issue in the government’s original Life Sciences Industrial Strategy from 2017. This new iteration, seemingly pulled together after minimal consultation with the research community, threatens to exacerbate the error, overlooking the breadth of the field and its role in tackling the biggest issues facing humanity.

Whether it’s the development of biofuels, sustainable agriculture, promoting biodiversity or tackling climate change, life science research is about much more than medicine. At a time when global economies have taken a battering, these fields can create new industries and future-proof existing sectors. The long-term economic value of life science is incalculable.

To research organisations like the Earlham Institute, government strategies shape our future. They set the agenda, the investment and funding trajectories, and the policy and regulatory landscape.

They determine which research projects get funded and which partners we collaborate with. This influences whether our scientists and technical support staff stay in the UK or seek their next opportunity overseas.

These strategies mustn’t be rushed, or parochial in their scope. They should be broad enough to include policy priorities across government; not just in public health delivery and pandemic recovery.

A Medical Sciences Strategy would be welcome, and perhaps that is the best route for this latest government drive. But any additional Life Science Strategy must capture the full breadth—and opportunities—of the research that sits under this banner, and be born from a comprehensive consultation that enables the UK to hold its position as a leading science nation.

This article was first published in Research Fortnight (subscription required).