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Brexit Hits Home

In November, the relocation of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) from London to Amsterdam was confirmed, with the loss of around 1000 UK-based jobs, many of which are highly skilled. The unsurprising but nevertheless bad news is a direct and inevitable consequence of Brexit, and there will certainly be further reaching effects on employment and the UK skills base – especially given that many pharmaceutical and biotech jobs in the London area exist because of the EMA’s presence.

It’s not all job losses. In late November, we heard of investments by Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD) and Qiagen into their UK operations (1)(2). MSD is set to establish a UK Discovery Centre in London, with a target date of 2020 for operational readiness, while Qiagen is looking to potentially invest in a genomics research campus in Manchester. And though this additional investment is to be warmly welcomed, does it really equalize the equation? In my view, definitely not.

The MSD investment, for example, is being portrayed by the media as bringing “950 new jobs”; however, on reading the formal press release on MSD’s UK website, I discovered that there will only be 150 new posts created, all in drug discovery research. The other 800 jobs (in process research and other functions) will be relocated from existing facilities in Hoddesdon, UK, and elsewhere. The number of new jobs to be created by Qiagen in their partnership with Health Innovation Manchester is not yet clear, but is stated as having “the potential to create up to 800 jobs.” (2)

Perhaps more worryingly, academic research in the UK is also suffering from the uncertainty of Brexit – and it is the nation’s vibrant, innovative and inclusive academic life sciences research scene that underpins its industrial sector. A large chunk of funding for UK-based academic research comes from the EU – can we expect the UK government to provide the same or a better level of funding? We have had no such commitment to date. Now that the British people have voted to remove freedom of movement to the UK from nationals of other EU states (and give up their own freedom of movement within the EU), one could expect post-Brexit research in the UK to be conducted by more UK nationals. So where is the necessary investment in education to keep high quality research in the UK? Companies like MSD and Qiagen have a choice as to where they base their activities, and they could move elsewhere if they can’t sustain UK facilities, so we need to make sure they have access to appropriately skilled employees.

So far, the industrial end of the research spectrum seems to be weathering the uncertainty of Brexit, but without the fundamental support of the academic sector, this resilience could prove to be unsustainable and short lived. One solution may be government financial support for industry (which will be allowable once the UK is out of the EU) and/or academia, but surely this investment of public money, made necessary by Brexit, is money that could have been spent elsewhere – the “leave” campaign’s poster child, the National Health Service, perhaps?

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  1. Merck, Sharp & Dohme, “MSD announces plan to establish UK Discovery Centre in London,” (2017). Available at: Last accessed December 12, 2017.
  2. Manchester Evening News, “Life sciences investment will bring 800 jobs to Manchester,” (2017). Available at: Last accessed December 12, 2017.
About the Author
Steve Maginn

Steve Maginn, Cambridge, UK.

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