Britain's burgeoning bioscience sector will ship out to the US unless there is urgent action to improve funding and coordination, a government and industry report warns today, writes Anna Fazackerley.
The final report of the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team, a partnership between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Health and the BioIndustry Association, says the UK is the European leader in this fast-growing sector. But it warns that at every level the US is outperforming the UK.
The US benefits from the world's largest end market, a critical mass of established profitable companies and a $ billion (£16 billion) annual research budget from the National Institutes of Health, which dwarfs UK biomedical research funding.
Sir David Cooksey, the group's chair, told The THES : "We are in danger of losing our advantage as it is so much easier to get things done in the US than here. The truth of the matter is that this is a big opportunity - taking action now can make a difference."
The report calls for better collaboration between the National Health Service, industry and academia on clinical research. It warns that inadequate infrastructure and insufficient research and development funding are stifling innovation.
The budget for NHS research and development has fallen from 1.2 per cent of total spend in 1997, to 0.9 per cent in 2002. It is predicted to fall further to 0.7 per cent in 2005. The team urged the DoH to increase the research budget to 1.5 per cent of its overall spend.
This recommendation echoes a report on strengthening clinical research published by the Academy of Medical Sciences last month. The DoH's first director of research, Sir Michael Peckham, originally set the 1.5 per cent target in the early 1990s, but it has never been met.
The review team calls for a national clinical trials agency to drive coordination across the sector. This would have the task of developing the infrastructure necessary to support efficient clinical trials. Eventually, it would be expected to fund a portfolio of clinical research programmes, with funding reaching £200 million a year after five years.
The government has indicated that it will accept this recommendation; a high-level group will consider how to set up this body. This will be supported by a £10 million investment by the government, although it has yet to clarify how the money will be used.
David Sainsbury, the science minister, said the government would consider the report's calls for a more substantial increase to clinical research funding.
He told The THES : "The NHS is a service no one else has. No one else can produce the same number of people for clinical trials. It is a real opportunity for us."
But Sir Richard Sykes, who will chair a new multibody bioscience leadership council charged with implementing the report, said any increase in funding must be concentrated between selected academic institutions. "We have to stop this nonsense of spreading things too thinly around the UK. We have centres of excellence already, and we can't have funding going to 50 [institutions] if we are going to compete effectively."