Brexit: challenges and opportunities for UK medical research
Catherine Ball | Features
Let’s rewind to 23 June last year. I think it’s fair to say that few people outside the science community had the impact on medical research in their minds when they entered the polling booth. It probably wasn’t the first thing that came to mind on hearing the result the next day either. However, UK medical research faces significant challenges and opportunities as a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU.
Fast forward to the present day. Article 50 has been triggered and negotiations to develop the UK’s future relationship with the EU have begun. The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has been working to gather the views of the medical research charity community and put forward the voice of the sector.
AMRC is the national membership body for leading medical and health charities funding research in the UK. We represent 140 medical research charities of all shapes and sizes, including the Society for Endocrinology. In 2015, our members invested over £1.4 billion of research funding in the UK: more than either the Medical Research Council or the National Institute for Health Research. They funded the salaries of over 15,000 researchers in the UK and 190,000 people took part in clinical trials supported by the charities.
FIVE KEY AREAS
The EU influences UK medical research in a number of different ways. AMRC have identified five key areas of focus:
1. Funding programmes and collaboration
Alongside financial support from charities, money from the EU is one of the four sources of public funding that underpin the UK’s thriving medical research sector. Horizon 2020 is the EU’s current Framework Programme for science and research, and the principal way that it funds science. The UK has received approximately €240 million from health-related Horizon 2020 projects so far – around 18% of the total awarded across EU member states. In terms of funding for science and research as a whole, the UK is currently the second highest recipient of Horizon 2020 funding.
2. Movement of people
EU freedom of movement rules mean that there is easy movement of EU citizens across EU member states. Science is intrinsically international and collaborative, so the passage of researchers, innovators and specialist technicians across the EU has arguably given the UK a competitive advantage globally, by opening up access to skills and international networks. Researchers from the EU play a key part in UK medical research. For example, around a fifth of British Heart Foundation-funded principal investigators have EU member state nationality. Movement is important in both directions; without easy movement between the UK and EU countries, UK researchers could also lose opportunities to train and develop specialist skills abroad.
3. Regulation of research
EU regulatory frameworks, spanning from clinical trials to data protection to the use of animals in research, help build consistent research standards between countries. These shared frameworks can facilitate the exchange of ideas, research samples and data. This can be particularly important for research into rare disease populations where multination, multicentre studies are the only way to access the number of patients needed for robust research.
4. Regulation of medicines and technologies
'We are working to ensure our position is heard ... At its core is that there must be no impact on patient access to treatments'
Regulatory co-operation on medicines and medical technology via the European Medicines Agency (EMA) provides stability and certainty for the life sciences sector. In the global pharmaceutical market, national systems of medicines regulation can result in slower access to treatments for patients. Drugs in Australia and Canada typically come to market 6–12 months later on average than those in the EU and USA. EMA represents 25% of the global pharmaceutical sales market, compared with the UK’s 3% share in isolation. The UK’s participation in EU regulatory processes and access to key databases focusing on medicines and medical technologies benefits innovation, public health and patients in the UK and beyond. In areas of emerging technologies, there may be opportunities for a more adaptable regulatory approach.
5. EU-facilitated networks
All of the areas identified above facilitate collaboration. The EU catalyses networks and joint working across member states, Europe and the globe. These connections are particularly vital for small and dispersed research communities, and many disease areas have specific European networks.
STRIVING TO THRIVE
So, how do we ensure that UK medical research continues to thrive and the community can take advantage of potential opportunities?
Working with our 140 members, including the Society for Endocrinology, AMRC has developed a position, and we are working to ensure it is heard by key stakeholders. At its core is that there must be no impact on patient access to treatments. In the Brexit negotiations, we’re calling on the UK Government to:
- Seek the closest achievable affiliation with EU research programmes that allows for our continued involvement. As well as maintaining access to Horizon 2020, the UK must be able to participate in and help shape future programmes including Framework Programme 9 (FP9).
Ensure that patients must be able to continue being part of clinical trials and have access to new therapies.
- Continue to co-operate with the EU regulatory processes and key databases, whilst recognising that in areas of emerging technologies there may be opportunities for a more adaptable regulatory approach, while protecting patient safety.
- Develop a transitional arrangement with the EU on regulatory frameworks and databases to ensure a smooth transition and patient safety.
- Urgently clarify the status of EU nationals in the UK amidst concerns that uncertainty about the status of research and healthcare professionals in the UK is damaging the UK’s reputation and attractiveness as a place to do research.
- Adopt a new and simple immigration framework for those involved in science and research, including researchers, skilled technicians and healthcare professionals, in order to continue to attract and retain these valued individuals within the UK life sciences community.
Signs from the Government pre-election suggested that they ‘got’ the importance of the EU for science and research. When the Prime Minister announced the Government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU in January, she included ensuring the UK remains the best place for science and innovation. In the White Paper that was to accompany the introduction of the ‘Brexit’ Bill in Parliament, the Government suggested that they ‘would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives’. We hope this could indicate an appetite of the Government for future UK participation in Horizon 2020 and FP9 and that this continues after the election.
Unfortunately, we can’t fast forward into the future and tell how the negotiations will unfold. All we can do is continue to work to put the voice of medical research charities forward, and monitor potential impact on the sector.
When the UK finally leaves the EU in March 2019, let’s hope that some more of our parliamentarians and policymakers have medical research on their minds.
Catherine Ball, Policy Manager
Association of Medical Research Charities