On June 23, 2016, UK voters became minded—some might say narrowly minded—to leave the European Union (EU). Little has become clear in the intervening time, except that the European Medicines Agency is setting sail for the Netherlands, never to be seen in British waters again (along with 900 highly skilled jobs); that Britain's renegotiation of open trading treaties with the EU will be lengthy and costly (the direct costs of initial disentanglement alone are already projected at $50–60 billion); and that an estimated 20% fall in Sterling's value will make British companies cheap targets for overseas buyers. All of which is unsettling for a UK biotech sector awaiting details of government plans to make it “a growth sector.”

In December, details of the plan came in the form of a government report entitled Industrial Strategy: Life Sciences Sector Deal, announced as the first phase of “a ground-breaking deal.” Among the report's key recommendations are: an increase in public R&D spending from £9.5 ($13.8) billion in 2016/17 to £12.5 ($17.3) billion in 2021/22; a Health Advanced Research Program (HARP) to invest in risky research (drawing comparisons with DARPA in the United States); £210 ($291) million for a “Data to early diagnostics and precision medicine” (DED) program to understand wellness and early diagnosis of disease; £162 ($225) million to create two national centers—the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre and the Vaccines Development and Manufacturing Centre—to complement the existing Cell & Gene Therapy Catapult in Stevenage as well as three advanced therapy treatment centers; and a £2.5 ($3.5)-billion investment fund to be established in the British Business Bank (not exclusively for the life sciences).

The Deal states that UK R&D spending will reach 2.4% of gross domestic product by 2027. For a country that is about to undergo the biggest upheaval in its R&D funding environment in decades, 2.4% is not a 'ground-breaking deal'; it is a retrograde step. It falls well below the 3% EU-wide target set in 2000 and is also markedly lower than the 2015 R&D level in Israel, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Belgium and the United States. Similarly, the amounts set aside for individual programs are equally unimpressive when one considers the current funding environment; for example, the DED program is allocated less money (£210 ($291) million) than one company—Guardant Health—recently received in a series A round to support work in precisely the same arena.

It doesn't help that the report seems stuffed with peripheral details to bulk it up. For example, the interest of a single US venture fund, Apple Tree, in creating one UK biopharmaceutical firm is trumpeted. Also weirdly prominent are plans to build in Sheffield centers for orthopedic and rehabilitation research and innovation and for child health and technology. Much is made about the arrival of multinationals, such as a Merck and Novo Nordisk in London and Oxford, respectively. $10-million investments from US firms Regeneron, AbbVie, Alnylam, Biogen and Pfizer to gain early access to UK Biobank data are also touted. All well and good, but this is activity that was already taking place.

Post-Brexit, the UK government had a chance to demonstrate just how a modern life-science-based economy might thrive free of state aid limitations imposed by the EU. Instead, the Life Sciences Sector Deal points only to continued tinkering at the wrong end of the investment pyramid, to a lack of faith or ambition in R&D, and to a laundry list of industry activity that for the most part was already taking place. Far from 'taking back control' (the Brexiteer's mantra), the Deal represents a missed opportunity.