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Global research allies critical to UK’s ‘science superpower’ ambitions

  • Strategic alliances with advanced and emerging nations can put the UK at the heart of a new global economy for science and research says a new report.
  • The UK can lead international collaborations to deliver on its ‘science superpower’ plans and continue to keep pace with the US, China, and South Korea.

International collaboration on science projects and strategic alliances with research allies will be key to achieving superpower status, says a new report into the future of the UK’s position as a global scientific influencer. 

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry points to fields like data science, artificial intelligence, genomics, and advanced manufacturing as developing areas of opportunity for UK researchers and scientists to lead international collaboration.

The UK has the building blocks in place to expand international research collaborations, with the most recent data available showing that 55 per cent of all joint research projects happening in the country involving some form of international partner, compared with 36 per cent in the USA, 30 per cent in Japan and 23 per cent in China.

Life sciences is one of the most collaborative sectors of the global economy and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to make sure British researchers are in the room for critical international projects. It’s clear that on science, we can’t go it alone. Dr Jen Harris

The report also points to several high-level health research collaborations underway that the UK should use as a model moving forward. These include the Canada-UK Artificial Intelligence Initiative, which is using AI to improve health and assist in drug discovery and the UK-South Korea partnership into precision medicine research.

The recent cooperation agreement struck between the UK and Switzerland by Innovation Minister George Freeman is another example of the ambitious ‘global Britain’, science-first agenda the government should be looking to explore. 

The report says the UK should look to build a role as a global convenor of advanced and emerging science-intensive countries, leading and shaping agenda-setting discussions on cutting-edge research to ensure Britain continues to be part of global collaborative projects.

The UK’s association with the Horizon Europe programme – the biggest such collaboration in the world – provides researchers with the opportunity to access both funding and international expertise that provides. 

Whilst government funding to support British applicants and researchers provides a welcome stopgap, it is no substitute for being part of the programme and giving UK researchers the opportunity to collaborate with the brightest minds in Europe and beyond, the ABPI warns.

Dr Jennifer Harris, Director of Research Policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said:

"Life sciences is one of the most collaborative sectors of the global economy and we want to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure British researchers are in the room for critical international projects. It’s clear that on science, we can’t go it alone.

"Delivering on the strategies and plans we’re seen in recent years on everything from regional science funding to plans for accelerating genomic research and building the skills pipeline will help us achieve those ambitions." 

The new report, Building the UK’s international research collaborations, puts forward two sets of key considerations for ministers. The first is how they work with strategic partners and scientific allies around the world to deliver:

  • Bilateral agreements and partnership deals with other governments to generate a shared appetite of risk into emerging areas of science and encourage private sector investment.
  • International administration systems that make setting up research, getting licensing agreements and sharing intellectual property successes easier so that breakthroughs can get to patients more quickly. 
  • Government-backed funding mechanisms and multi-year financing to encourage private-sector investment in riskier, but higher reward, ventures. 

The second is what the government should be focusing on at home to feed Britain’s future science economy, by building domestic capacity and securing international sources of three key things:

  • Highly skilled researchers by investing in the domestic research talent base and making the UK more attractive and accessible for globally mobile talent than competitors.
  • Access to and infrastructure for data, with strict governance rules that protect people’s privacy but that allow cutting-edge research to take place. 
  • A free flow of scientific goods be that lab equipment, medicinal components, or chemicals and reducing friction by mutual recognising regulations and standards. 
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Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023

The ABPI exists to make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines. We represent companies of all sizes who invest in discovering the medicines of the future. 

Our members supply cutting edge treatments that improve and save the lives of millions of people. We work in partnership with Government and the NHS so patients can get new treatments faster and the NHS can plan how much it spends on medicines. Every day, we partner with organisations in the life sciences community and beyond to transform lives across the UK.