Press Story

Think tank calls for life science investment to be prioritised to ‘level-up’ the country and prepare for future global pandemics

New analysis reveals a North/South divide in life science investment. Overall, the North of England receives £4 billion less investment per year in health research and development (R&D) than the South. It receives just £72 of health R&D investment per person, compared to £168 in the South:

  • Investment by government totals just £22 per person in the North, two fifths of the £56 per person invested in the South of England. In the Midlands, it is as low as £16.
  • Investment by the private sector totals £50 per person in the North, half as much as the £112 per head invested in the South. Investment in the Midlands is lowest, at £12 per head - just a tenth of what is spent in the South.

The report, The Science Based Economy, argues this inequality is incompatible with government commitments to ‘build, build, build’ and to level up the UK economy.

Becoming a ‘Science superpower’

The report highlights the significant opportunity offered by UK life sciences, with the authors strongly supporting government plans to put them at the heart of the UK economy. However, the research reveals three further challenges to the UK becoming a true ‘life science superpower’:

  • Scale - The UK has underinvested in R&D for decades - falling short of the OECD average by a total of £222 billion since 1985. The report estimates that, to meet the government’s target of spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D by 2027, the UK needs to double annual 'non-industry' life science investment. This means delivering £90 billion in life science investment from all sources by the end of 2027.
  • Value – The UK struggles to link research activity to the health priorities of its people. New analysis by IPPR and CF, a health management consultancy, reveals that some conditions receive disproportionately little investment. For example, cancer and mental ill-health have a similar level of impact on the nation’s health, yet R&D investment in cancer (£2 billion) is twice that in mental health (£1 billion).
  • Security – The UK's R&D strategy is not adequately preparing the UK for future global health risks - including a sharply increasing threat of global disease outbreaks, the rise of anti-microbial resistant diseases and ageing populations. Covid-19 is part of a wider pattern of 'health disruption’ that the UK should now be pre-empting, according to IPPR.


The report proposes a new national strategy, designed to maximise investment, unleash potential across the country, and ensure health security for all. It argues that as part of the ‘new deal’ for the economy in the 2020s the government should aim to deliver:

  • A national deal - Set an investment target of £14.5 billion per year for the life sciences – from public, private and charity sources combined - alongside a new strategy to attract private investment to the UK: by improving social and physical infrastructure; expanding access to capital; and supporting the UK’s world-leading academic infrastructure.
  • Inclusive growth - Reform the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) body, to ensure more public funding flows beyond the South to other regions including the North; do more to develop regional skills; and build more regional transport, digital and physical infrastructure to attract investment to these areas. This should be combined with devolution of decision-making to cities and regions that demonstrate the capacity to manage their own R&D funding, and a process to build capacity in those that need more support.
  • Health value - Take a more active role in ensuring R&D supports UK health resilience after Covid-19. Building on the UK’s existing industrial strategy, it should set up new and ambitious ‘research missions’ to prioritise health resilience and other urgent national health needs ignored by the market.

Chris Thomas, IPPR Health Fellow and lead author, said:

“Outside London and the South, the UK life science sector has huge potential. Yet, that potential is being limited by a serious inequality in R&D investment.

“If the government is serious about making the UK a ‘science superpower’ it will need toinvest in the whole country and support regions like the North to develop their own industrial strategies, in a more devolved way, to fulfil their potential.

“The benefits would be substantial. A more diverse and regionally equal approach to R&D would boost productivity; support a more equal economic recovery from Covid-19; and help build UK resilience to future health shocks.

“Covid-19 is proof of how important this is. Entering the next decade without a coherent and progressive health R&D strategy would be like building a house on a volcano and not taking out insurance.”

Former life sciences minister George Freeman MP, who also wrote the foreword to the report, said:

“A real commitment to making the UK a science superpower and an innovation nation isn’t just essential for our economic competitiveness. Innovation is the key to achieving productivity gains across the whole of our country, creating new growth and job opportunities in areas left behind by the London service economy.

“Nowhere is the opportunity greater than in the bio-economy: the appliance of bioscience to help solve the most urgent global grand challenges in the life science, agritech and cleantech sectors, which should sit right at the heart of the science-based economy.”

Dr Séamus O’Neill, chief executive officer at the Northern Health Science Alliance, said:

“Research and innovation are key to economic growth and there has been a systematic and sustained underfunding of the North over decades. If levelling-up or a commitment to post-Covid economic recovery are to go beyond rhetoric, targeted government investment in northern assets is essential.

“The Northern Health Science Alliance welcomes this IPPR Report into life science investment in the UK which recognises to level up the UK it is essential to address the inequality across the country.

“Health R&D and innovation is a key strength of the North and we have exceptional NHS hospital trusts and universities willing to play their part in economic regeneration.

“There is a window of opportunity: the commitment to an overall increase in R&D spending by the government means that underpinning and growing the excellence in the North can be done without destabilising the infrastructure elsewhere.”



David Wastell, Head of News and Communications:

Robin Harvey, Digital and Media Officer:


  1. The IPPR paper, The Science-Based Economy: The role of health research, by Chris Thomas and Shreya Nanda, Economist at IPPR’s Centre for Economic Justice, will be published at 0001 on Friday 10 July. It will be available for download at:
  1. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request
  1. To compare regional disparities the South was defined as the South East, the South West, the East of England and London. The North was defined as the North West, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber. The Midlands were defined as the East and West Midlands.
  1. The regional breakdown of public investment in health research by region was:

Public and charity per capita health research spend by region, 2018

Spend per capita

North of England

£ 22

South of England

£ 56


£ 16


£ 53


£ 19

Northern Ireland

£ 14

  1. The regional breakdown of private investment in life science R&D by region was:

Private research per capita spend by region, pharmaceutical industry

Spend per capita

North of England

£ 50

South of England

£ 112


£ 12


£ 28


£ 12

Northern Ireland

£ 23

  1. The inequality between cancer and mental health is measured using ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ [DALYs]. This is an estimate of the total number of life years a disease costs in a given year – but which also recognises and gives a value to the impact of illness which impacts quality of life, as well as its length. Our analysis calculated the total DALYs lost through different conditions and compared that with the total invested in that condition’s R&D. For cancer and mental health, this showed:

£ invested in R&D/year

Disability-adjusted life years [DALYs] caused per year

£ invested by DALY


£1.94 billion

3.3 million


Mental health

£0.98 billion

2.9 million


If mental health received the same investment as cancer, relative to its health impact, it would receive £736 million more per year.

  1. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence.