The mysterious UK Life Sciences Council

Views & Analysis
life sciences

Just as the life sciences industry is getting vocal about how it’s faring, given the prospect of having to pay back the government 30% of NHS branded medicines sales in 2023, and as it needs to negotiate a new deal on branded medicines pricing and access that will apply from 2024 onwards - there’s been more talk about the Life Sciences Council (LSC). The LSC is a forum for government-to-industry discussion and it last met on the 28 November 2022 with special guest, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Yet, details on the LSC remain sparse, at least in the public domain. Leela Barham calls for more transparency on the LSC when it’s needed most.

Life Sciences Council

Do you know about the Life Sciences Council (LSC)? You’d be forgiven if you haven’t heard about it because there’s little about it in the public domain. That’s either an oversight or perhaps more cynically, by design. (You can choose after you’ve read this.)

The LSC has a website on, but the page says Life Sciences Council. Yes, that’s it. That’s all you can find out. (Ironically, it’s also got the ubiquitous ‘Is this page useful?’ question. I’ve answered that with a resounding ‘no’ a long time ago, but no action was taken).

LinkedIn and Twitter chatter

Whilst the government website is quiet on the LSC, LinkedIn chatter about it has picked up in recent days.

Axel Heitmueller, managing director at Imperial College Health Partners, posted before the Council met on 28 November 2022, suggesting that the Council meeting should send out a strong message from the government that innovation will be at the heart of healthcare recovery.

A post from the director of health and life sciences at Innovate UK, Richard J Hebdon, also bigged up the news before the Council met about four health missions. The government is committing £113 million to cancer, mental health, obesity, and addiction research.

Perhaps most notable of all, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s LinkedIn account posted about the meeting on 29 November. The post said it was good to meet Steve Barclay, Secretary of State for Health, Grant Shapps, Business Secretary, and Will Quince, Minister of State for Health, as well as leaders from the health sector. By 5.18 pm on 29 November, that post had generated reactions from 6,884 people, led to comments from 262 people, and had 62 reposts.

The BGMA posted about their chief exec Mark Samuels attending the LSC and discussing the four health missions, too.

The LSC has been tweeted about in the past. Matt Hancock, formerly Health Minister, tweeted about the LSC meeting on 10 May 2021. He described it as the “holy trinity of Government, academia, and industry.” Tweets were also posted by Richard Torbett, currently chief executive at the ABPI, as well as Kwasi Kwarteng, at the time Secretary of State at BEIS. That seems to be it, though; no other tweets about LSC were found.

The challenge with these platforms in informing people about just what the LSC is all about reflects their very nature: they’re ad hoc and can limit detail.

Life sciences lobbying

That PM Rishi Sunak joined the LSC meeting on 28 November is likely a sign of how life sciences have gone up the government’s agenda.

Hard to know, but perhaps that reflects lobbying in recent months from the industry. There are concerns about payments due under VPAS, predicted to be in the region of 30% of branded medicines sales to the NHS for 2023. There are also clear warning signs about the state of the sector in the UK; the ABPI pointed out that the UK is falling behind international competitors for the manufacture of life science products, as well as NHS patients losing access to innovative treatments as the UK industry clinical trials face collapse. That was just in November alone.

Who’s who on the Council

The Council has been around since 2018, first meeting on 16 May 2018. Back then it was chaired by Business Secretary Greg Clark and Health and Social Care Secretary Jeremy Hunt. From industry was Pascal Soriot, chief exec at AstraZeneca, as co-chair, alongside representatives from J&J, MSD, and the industry body, the ABPI.

When the government is shy, there’s always the option of sending a freedom of information (FOI) request. An FOI was sent to the Department of Health and Social Care in September 2022 (so, well ahead of the recent uptick in chatter in anticipation that there would be more to talk about between the government and the sector in the run-up to the negotiation of the VPAS).

An FOI response reveals the current membership (see box). Useful to know for those who want to get in contact. (As an aside, it must now be standard practice to leave the names of those from the government unspecified, I guess because you never know who post holders might actually be when the LSC meets, given recent turmoil in government).

Box 1: Current membership of the Life Sciences Council


1.     Secretary of State DHSC (government co-chair)

2.     Secretary of State BEIS (government co-chair)

3.     Sir Pascal Soriot (CEO AstraZeneca, industry co-chair)

4.     Minister of State for Health DHSC

5.     Minister of State for Business and Industry BEIS

6.     Amanda Pritchard (Chief Executive, NHS England)

7.     Rosalind Campion (Director, Office for Life Sciences)

8.     Professor Sir John Bell (Life Science Champion)

9.     Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser (CEO, UK Research and Innovation)

10.  Professor Sir Jeremy Farrar (Director, Wellcome Trust)

11.  Dr Richard Torbett (Chief Executive, Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry)

12.  Peter Ellingworth (Chief Executive, Association of the British HealthTech Industries)

13.  Steve Bates (Chief Executive, BioIndustry Association)

14.  Phil Thomson (CEO, GSK)

15.  Haruo Naito (CEO, Eisai Co Ltd)

16.  Paul Hudson (CEO, Sanofi)

17.  Giovanni Caforio (CEO, Bristol Myers Squibb)

18.  Jean-Christophe Tellier (CEO, UCB)

19.  Dr Nerida Scott (Regional Head Innovation and EMEA, Johnson & Johnson)

20.  Neil Mesher (CEO and SVP UK and Ireland, Phillips)

21.  Sam Roberts (CEO, NICE)

22.  Rt Hon Professor Lord Darzi of Denham (Chair, NHS Accelerated Access Collaborative)

23.  David Bickerton (Director General for Business Sectors, BEIS)

24.  Professor Lucy Chappell (DHSC Chief Scientific Advisor, DHSC and CEO, NIHR)


Source: DHSC FOI response, 30 September 2022

It’s also clear how attendees differ from the list, as the BGMA isn’t on the membership list, nor is the PM.

Terms of reference

The council’s terms of reference haven’t been found through desk research. Instead, there are hints from other documents that are published by the government about just what the LSC is there to do.

The 2018 publication of the 2019 Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS) made mention of the LSC. VPAS promised further development of strategic engagement between VPAS members and their representative bodies and HTA body, NICE, and NHS England, the biggest buyer of specialised medicines in the UK. This engagement was to be aligned with existing arrangements, and that’s where the LSC came in, as well as sub-groups of the Council. (As an aside, it also name-checked the NICE Implementation Collaborative - whatever happened to them? It also mentioned the Accelerated Access Collaborative, which is still around.)

So, who are the sub-groups? That’s tricky to find out about too. There’s one that has popped up in desk research, the Patient Access to Medicines Partnership (PAMP). As a result of a parliamentary question, it’s possible to find out its stated purpose: “a forum for strategic, high-level discussions on United Kingdom pharmaceutical and medicines access policy.”

There’s a lot of overlap with the LSC membership – but, despite the access focus, none from the devolved nations – yet, there is one member that stands out: the Charity Medicines Access Coalition. That’s because it’s the first-time patient representatives are given a voice in these circles, the Coalition having ten health charity members and chaired by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

More detail on PAMPs discussions come from the BioIndustry Association (BIA), which covered a PAMP meeting on 9 May 2022 in an overview of its work to influence and shape the sector. According to the BIA, the discussions covered the future of life sciences in the NHS, early access pathways like the Early Access to Medicines Scheme (EAMS), the Innovative Licencing and Access Pathway (ILAP), the Innovative Medicines Fund (IMF), Project Orbis, and the NICE methods and process review. Quite the meeting!

The Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Update, published in January 2020, updating on the second Life Sciences Sector Deal from 2018, also mentions the LSC. It said that the government would continue to work with the sector through the LSC to deliver the vision of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy.

In July 2021, Life Sciences Vision (the comms people must be running out of new ways to say the same thing) promised that terms of reference for the Life Sciences Implementation Board (LSIB) – which sits under the LSC – would be refreshed. Desk research has not found anything to show what, if anything, was done as a result.

Meetings at least once a year

The FOI also asked for agendas covering the LSC meetings since 1 January 2019 (to coincide with the start of the current VPAS).

Agendas shared as part of the FOI response suggest that hot topics were as follow (meetings that they were discussed at are in brackets):

  • Brexit/future relationships with EU/Trade and international opportunities (May 2019, June 2020, November 2020, May 2021)
  • UK fiscal incentive landscape (May 2019)
  • Sector Deal/Life Sciences Strategy/Innovation for growth/Life science sector vision (May 2019, June 2020, November 2020, May 2021, November 2021)
  • Accelerated Access Collaborative (May 2019)
  • UK commercial environment/operating environment (June 2020, May 2021)
  • Pandemic (November 2020)
  • UK access and uptake (November 2020)
  • COP/Net Zero (May 2021, November 2021)

Make of these what you will; arguably, what they show is (yet more) comms creativity referring to the same thing in different ways. It also shows how industry-focused the discussions are, with access and uptake getting one slot in November 2020. That could be uncharitable; maybe it came up in other discussions, too. The trouble is that the substance of discussions is not possible to see because of two reasons.

The first is that the DHSC said that “DHSC is refusing your request for minutes under the provisions of section 14(1) of the FOIA. Section 14 permits a public body to refuse a request for information if the request is vexatious. It is important to note that the DHSC is not claiming that you, as the requestor, are vexatious, however, DHSC believes the request itself is vexatious” (my first vexatious FOI request!).

DHSC added “DHSC believes that this part of your request is a burden due to having to perform a review of the minutes for each meeting. We consider that doing this would place an unreasonable burden on DHSC as each set of minutes would require a review to confirm if remarks included were exempt from release under the FOIA and we will not be able to process your request as currently drafted.” Makes you wonder just what those minutes include, doesn’t it? Or could it be that meetings were more of a damp squib and not much was said?

The second is that papers that are referred to in the agendas aren’t available in the public domain either.

Replacement for MISG

Those who have been around long enough know that it’s not novel to have a forum for government – and crucially bringing both industrial and health policy together – to meet with life sciences leaders. The Life Sciences Council replaced the Ministerial Industry Strategy Group (MISG).

MISG still has a government website that sets out the membership, terms of reference, agenda, and minutes as well as contact details. It’s even possible to go further back and access more from archived web pages. It begs the question of why there is no comparable transparency about the LSC?

Public interest?

There will be those who ask – rightly – does it matter if all the details of the LSC are only known to a few ‘insiders’? It does. Life sciences and its impact on the people of the UK is more than is represented by the great and good that are on the membership list. Not least, tackling access challenges for patients – today’s and tomorrow’s – should be important to everyone.

A Council is a pragmatic solution when it would be impossible to get work done if everyone with an interest was there - that’s why there are representative bodies like ABPI and others who are members. But isn’t there a public interest in what these discussions cover and the work that flows from it? Experience with MISG shows that sharing more in the public domain about how government works with life sciences can be done. The government needs to do better on the Life Sciences Council.

About the author

leela barhamLeela Barham is a researcher and writer who has worked with all stakeholders across the health care system, both in the UK and internationally, on the economics of the pharmaceutical industry. Leela worked as an advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care on the 2019 Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS).