The vision for Scotland’s life sciences sector was for it to be worth £8 billion by 2025. That was before Covid and Brexit. How is it faring?

Few of us would argue with Robert Burns’ observation that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley’, even though not many of us could have guessed just how agley things would get since the publication in 2017 of the Life Sciences Strategy for Scotland 2025 Vision.

That vision was to make Scotland the location of choice for the life sciences community and its mission was to increase the industry’s contribution to the Scottish economy to £8 billion by 2025.

When former prime minister Harold Macmillan was asked to identify the greatest challenge for a states-man, he famously replied: “Events, dear boy, events”. Few would argue that events have intervened to radically alter the economic landscape since the launch of that bold vision for life sciences in 2017.

Since then, there has been a pandemic shutting down global economies for extended periods, Brexit has taken us out of Europe, a war has raged between Russia and Ukraine, and a cost-of-living crisis has seen inflation soar to a 40-year high and forecast to rise further still.

Given such cataclysmic events, one might be forgiven for thinking that the mission for life sciences had been rendered a mission impossible.

But the welcome surprise is that, according to Life Sciences Scotland figures released in May (the most recent available), the industry reached £7.4 billion turnover by the end of 2019 and is on course to hit its target of £8 billion by 2025.

The caveat is that these figures pre-date the significant events of the last few years, the impacts of which are presently unknown. Nevertheless, there are grounds for optimism that the impact of Covid-19 on Scotland’s life sciences sector may not be entirely negative.

For example, during the pandemic Stirlingshire-based Omega Diagnostics joined the UK Rapid Test Consortium, which developed an antibody test for Covid-19. It also partnered with fellow UK diagnostics specialist, Mologic, to co-develop a rapid antigen test for the virus.

BioAscent, a contract research organisation based in Newhouse, Motherwell, helped to create Scotland’s Lighthouse Laboratory which provides diagnostic services for the UK’s Covid testing service.

And while the pandemic brought significant challenges, it also prompted a welcome acceleration in the adoption by health organisations of cloud technology to improve care and support services for citizens and patients, provide access to information in real-time and also to accelerate the pace of research and innovation.

Indeed, a recent report by international consultants Deloitte showed the underlying performance and outlook for the life sciences sector is healthy, with many companies’ growth buoyed by Covid-19 therapeutics, and the majority of others remaining fairly immune to some of the pandemic impacts.

It suggests that the last two years of the pandemic saw unprecedented collaboration across life sciences and with stakeholders. Everyone mobilised in the interest of patients, including regulatory agencies around the world digitally sharing research.

Scientific breakthroughs, such as the mRNA technologies behind the Covid-19 vaccines and cell and gene therapies, have many potential use cases for the future. The new processes adopted to expedite Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutic products are now also being applied to speed up the development of other drugs and treatments.

Yet while there have been some positive outcomes to be gleaned from the pandemic for Scotland’s life sciences sector, any benefits to be had from Brexit are harder to identify.As a country we leverage a lot of research through universities and academic institutions, much of which is conducted by PhD and post-doctoral students, many of whom are European Economic Area citizens who study here then stay to work.

It is currently unclear what the long-term implications of Brexit will be in terms of the number of people who will continue to do that. But given recent supply chain issues, a question mark now hangs over whether the sector will be able to continue to attract and retain a globally mobile workforce.

That said, pharmaceutical and bio-technology company GSK has been investing in Scotland since the Brexit referendum took place. Just a month after the 2016 vote, the company announced that it would spend £110 million to develop a new respiratory diseases facility in Montrose.

Dave Tudor, managing director of the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre, and, until recently, industry chair of Life Sciences Scotland, has no doubt that the sector will exceed its stated mission of contributing £8 billion to the Scottish economy by 2025.

“The Scottish life sciences ecosystem is growing rapidly from strength to strength,” he says. “Scotland’s becoming a super place for life sciences companies to land and grow. We have a developing infrastructure of innovation coupled with a very steady and strong skills base. Those are the two magic ingredients for life sciences: great innovation with a workforce to deliver it.”

So, all the evidence suggests that the mission to contribute £8 billion to the economy by 2025 is a mission possible.

The Scottish life sciences ecosystem is growing rapidly from strength to strength

Dave Tudor, Managing director, Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre