31/08/2017 11:32 BST | Updated 31/08/2017 11:32 BST

A Nation Of Scientists: Can Life Sciences Be The New Financial Services?

Making money doing something you're good at is a sound rule for people and for nations. This helps explain why prioritising life sciences is one of the few of David Cameron's policies that Theresa May has adopted with gusto. But will it be enough to steer the UK's economy through the turmoil of Brexit?

On 30 August the government announced the first £15 million funding opportunity to speed up access to medicines, as part of a wider £146 million healthcare challenge fund. At the same time Professor John Bell unveiled his review of life sciences for the Industrial Strategy, focused on better use of data, medical infrastructure and the NHS.

There are good reasons for backing British science. We are already good at it, with a plethora of recent medical discoveries (DNA sequencing, cloning) building on centuries of achievement. It is also precisely the kind of business that a high-end value-add developed economy should be in - there is no point competing with cheaper developing economies.

The NHS is a unique national asset for research. No other country has such a comprehensive, large-scale database of patients drawn from all walks of life and genome types as we have in the NHS. Medical research is also a growth sector, with ageing populations not only in the rich West and Japan but also in emerging giants such as China.

Medical science is not just about creating pills. Medtech and digital health are exciting new fields of endeavour - you can now do research on a desktop computer that would have taken years of trial-and-error in a laboratory. Medical devices are booming, with doctors able to conduct keyhole surgery with microscopic instruments operated through the Internet from across the world.

The UK did very well out of financial services, though arguably the fall-out from the 2008 financial crisis and LIBOR banking scandals poisoned the perception of bankers and politicians. Even putting 2008 to one side, financial services is not the growth sector it once was - fintech innovations are bringing investment tools directly to the masses. We are unlikely to see the wealth or the employment of pre-2008 financial services return anytime soon.

If medical sciences are to be the cash cow of the UK economy for the next few decades, we have two obstacles to overcome: a skills shortage and our possible divorce from the European medicines market.

Financial services in London sucked in talented workers from across the world. Life sciences must be able to do the same. But also, we must learn the political lessons of the last two years; importing labour is not enough, we also need to develop home-grown skills if the sector is to be viable, and if it is going to be championed by the media and the public more generally.

Related to this, we need more skilled scientists from ethnic minority backgrounds and we need to try balance the gender gap in science. This is important because brain work needs to draw talent from the widest possible pool. And politically, the public are not going to champion and back investment in a sector that simply recreates the perceived rich white boys' club of financial services.

Full access to the European medicines market is important, because drugs cost money to make so we need a big market to sell to. This is why I argue the government should agree to automatically authorise medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) for the UK market after Brexit, and we should seek to have the EMA recognise UK-approved drugs reciprocally.

This move will have the added benefit of giving British patients access to the latest medicines developed in the US and elsewhere. Pharmaceutical companies typically licence new medicines in the biggest markets first, for commercial reasons. The US tends to get new medicines first (no matter where in the world they were developed), followed by the EU market, and then Japan, before working their way through the list of smaller jurisdictions.

The UK should not become one of those smaller jurisdictions. We should stick as closely to the EMA regime as possible, and we should persuade European governments that they need to automatically recognise UK-approved medicines to give their people access to the amazing new discoveries that British scientists will surely continue to make in the years to come.