Ivan McKee comment: Life sciences can give Scotland a helping hand

The bionic hand is an example of Scotland's culture of innovation, writes McKee. Picture: National Museums of Scotland
The bionic hand is an example of Scotland's culture of innovation, writes McKee. Picture: National Museums of Scotland
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Scotland can build on its resources and reputation in the life sciences sector to turn our bold vision into a reality, writes minister for innovation Ivan McKee.

From the discovery of insulin and penicillin through to Dolly the sheep and the development of the bionic hand, Scotland has always punched above its weight when it comes to medical innovation.

Scotland is a nation with huge economic potential, and this is no more evident than in the many opportunities presented by our strength in innovation and our reputation as a global leader in life sciences.

Scottish research excellence leads the way across a wide range of disciplines in the sector – animal health, precision medicine, digital health, cancer research, food sustainability and medicines manufacturing to name a few.

Employing almost 40,000 people across more than 700 businesses, this is a sector that is incredibly important to the Scottish economy – creating high value jobs and improving the quality of health and care, not just in our home country but across the world.

It is also a sector that is forecast to grow considerably in the future, and it is one where Scotland has distinct competitive advantages, demonstrated by the growth in our indigenous businesses and our strong record in attracting foreign direct investment.

Investment in research and development is critical to the long-term success of any industry, particularly one so dependent on innovation as life sciences.

That is why it is so pleasing to see the latest Business Enterprise Research and Development (BERD) figures for 2017. They show the life sciences sector standing head and shoulders above all our other key industries. Almost a quarter of all BERD spend in Scotland was in the life sciences sector. And the sector delivered a BERD spend of more than £17,000 per job, almost 36 times the average for the whole economy.

Not only does this demonstrate that businesses across Scotland value the importance of research and development within the sector, but also that they recognise the long-term prospects for the success of the industry.

Scotland is globally acknowledged as a leader in life science innovation, whether it’s those first pathfinding journeys in pioneering drugs and treatment methods that have gone on to shape modern healthcare systems or the latest advancements in artificial intelligence-enabled preventative interventions.

There is much we should be proud of when it comes to our achievements to date, and this is something that, as a government, we are determined to continue.

To ensure Scotland remains the location of choice for businesses and world-class research, the industry-led life sciences strategy set out a number of actions bringing together government, industry and academia to help realise our ambitious target to grow industry turnover from almost £5.2 billion in 2016, to £8bn by 2025.

One such example is the new £15.8m artificial intelligence health research centre, to be known as iCaird, at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, which will bring together a pan-Scotland collaboration of 15 partners from academia, the NHS, and industry.

Last year also saw the successful Scottish bid for the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC), which will be located at Inchinnan in Renfrewshire. The centre will reduce the risk and accelerate the adoption of emerging and novel manufacturing technologies for the manufacture of small molecule pharmaceuticals and fine high value chemicals. This is expected to transform medicines manufacturing and make Scotland a leader in technology and innovation within the sector. The MMIC will be located next to the National Manufacturing Institute for Scotland and aims to attract more than £80m in research and development investment by 2028.

The life sciences sector stands to be impacted particularly severely by Brexit. As well as exacerbating skills shortages and disrupting complex international supply chains, the risks of regulatory divergence is of particular concern. And the close relationship between the sector and academia means that the risk to research funds, cooperation and the free flow of academic talent will also harm the sector.

Nonetheless, and despite the colossal mistake that is Brexit, we have to do our best to mitigate this misguided policy. Scotland is in a unique position to bring industry, government and academia together to work towards a common goal and deliver results.

This is particularly important when it comes to implementing the next phase of the life sciences strategy and ensuring that we stay on the path towards achieving the targets for life sciences we set almost two years ago. I look forward to doing everything in my power to ensure that this bold target becomes a bold reality.