Brexit Is Chance to Spur Biotechnology, May’s Policy Chief Says

  • U.K. to make case to retain EU medicines regulator in London
  • Business secretary touts professional services, clean energy

Brexit is an “incredible opportunity” for the U.K. to push its expertise in biotechnology and other sciences as the country is freed from burdensome European Union regulation, according to George Freeman, the chairman of Prime Minister Theresa May’s policy board.

QuickTake Brexit

Britain is a global “superpower” in both science and finance, but not in the commercialization of science and the government can do “an awful lot” to marry the two, Freeman said on Monday at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, central England. He called for a sense of “national mission” akin to former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s Apollo space program.

George Freeman

Photographer: Steve Back/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

“One of the opportunities of taking ourselves out of the European political regulatory structure is the chance to liberate ourselves from some of the dafter regulations,” said Freeman, a Conservative Party lawmaker who formerly worked in biomedical science. “We’ve seen a creeping anti-science anti-biotech attitude in Europe. It’s holding us back. The world is at the dawn of an age of bioscience and Europe is legislating itself out of the fast lane.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond on Monday underscored his commitment to biotechnology, which includes genetic engineering and has applications in the pharmaceuticals, agriculture and chemicals industries, by pledging 100 million pounds ($130 million) for the sector as well as 120 million pounds to help link universities with entrepreneurs.

Staying in Britain

“I want to see what is invented here, developed here,” Hammond told delegates. “I want to see what is developed here, produced here. I want to see jobs, profits and tax receipts here in Britain.”

Freeman is helping shape a new industrial strategy as the U.K. prepares to begin negotiations to leave the EU by the end of March. Business Secretary Greg Clark touted Britain’s satellite industry and identified other sectors that Britain can develop.

“Our professional services, our creative industries, our technologists –- they all set the global gold standard,” Clark said in a speech to the Tory conference Monday. “Our global leadership in combating climate change now presents us with a massive opportunity to enjoy industrial success as we put clean energy at the heart of our industrial future.”

‘Really Enlightened’

In the biotechnology sector, scrapping EU regulations would “easily compensate” for the risks” associated with losing some access to EU markets, Freeman said. “If we could build a really enlightened regulatory framework, we’d steal a march very powerfully.”

The policy chief also said Britain will try to keep the European Medicine Authority, the EU’s regulator, which has its headquarters in London, and which Milan has already indicated an interest in poaching.

“We’ve got to demonstrate that it’s not in Europe’s interest to take the EMA away,” he said. “Part of that sector’s challenge is to show that we may be pulling ourselves out of the regulatory framework, but we’re writing the playbook for 21st-century regulation.”

Freeman also said:

  • “People have read too much into the tea leaves” over May’s decision to delay approval for the Hinkley Point nuclear plant, “The prime minister arrived and was confronted with a massive decision of historic proportions. She perfectly naturally said ‘I’ll have a look at this for myself.”’ The project was given the go-ahead last month.
  • The government doesn’t have an issue with foreign takeovers of key companies, providing they are committed to Britain. “We need to be saying to companies we’re reasonably comfortable about who owns it as long as it’s accountable and subject to global law. But we are interested in what your commitment here is. If you’re buying to strip it out, we want to know about that. Can we persuade you to make a longer-term commitment, and if not, why not? What do we need to do to persuade you to make that commitment?”
  • The government will make “some moves in due course” to address inequalities in pay.
  • The situation of a generation being “locked out” of the housing market "is just not sustainable.” A policy of building new towns on railway lines would be feasible in his county, Norfolk in eastern England, and “I suspect that’s true in quite a lot of regions.”
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