What’s on the horizon for UK drug discovery?

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Editor Reece Armstrong provides an introduction to the Fall 2023 issue of Drug Discovery World. Find out more about the issue and how to read it.

That this issue should feature a market report on the state of the United Kingdom’s drug discovery sector at the same time the country has regained access to Horizon Europe is somewhat of a happy coincidence.

The UK has long been known as a remarkable region for scientists to conduct their research in. From places such as London, Oxford, and Cambridge, which make up the Golden Triangle, to the North West’s Alderley Park which acts as a life sciences innovation hub, the country has never been short of amazing places where researchers can flourish. However, science has always depended on collaboration and we’ve seen fantastic work come from research where teams were based in different parts of the world, increasing access to patient cohorts, technological platforms, and expertise.

Now, the UK government has announced that the country will be participating as a fully associate member of Horizon Europe, until the programme ends in 2027.

The news was described as a ‘huge win’ by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), with Janet Valentine, ABPI Executive Director, Innovation and Research Policy, saying: “Joining the Horizon Europe programme is a huge win for the scientific research community, who have been pushing for resolution over the past few years. UK innovation and research depends on international collaborations which are crucial for driving advancements in all areas of science, including the discovery and early development of new medicines and vaccines.”

Yes, this renewed membership is a win to UK scientists, who will now be able to access research programmes, apply for grants and take part in Horizon Europe projects, all of which would have been inaccessible if the UK wasn’t involved in the programme.

However, to act as if this is a major win for the government is disingenuous. After all, the disruption caused by the UK leaving the European Union and the following split from Horizon Europe has been noted by scientists.

For instance, in a survey of 84 scientists conducted by Cancer Research UK, over three quarters of them said that the new relationship between the UK and the EU had caused difficulties in recruiting and retaining research staff.

The move shows that whilst the UK is a fantastic place to do science, the country can’t stand alone if it wants its scientists to truly flourish.

The renewed agreement speaks to a notion of lost time since the UK left the bloc and effectively left Horizon Europe as a result. In the two and a half years since, negations about re-joining have been ongoing and scientists and potentially patients have lost out.

This is evident when you look at the funding opportunities presented to researchers before and after the UK left Horizon Europe. Figures reported in The Guardian show that in 2019, 1,364 grants, totalling €959.3 million in funding, were awarded to UK researchers. In 2023, only 192 grants and €22.18m had been given to UK scientists.

Scientists will be grateful that they can now apply for grants through one of the world’s best scientific funding programmes but let’s not forget the reason why we’ve had to re-join in the first place. If anything, the move shows that whilst the UK is a fantastic place to do science, the country can’t stand alone if it wants its scientists to truly flourish.

DDW Volume 24 – Issue 4, Fall 2023

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