Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse is potentially risky to UK life sciences research
Fight for Sight Chief Executive Keith Valentine warns that the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank is a warning shot for the UK government. The government needs to step up and invest in life sciences, specifically in sight loss, which is underfunded despite the cost to individuals and the UK economy.
By Keith Valentine, Chief Executive of Fight for Sight
Fight for Sight’s mission is to stop sight loss through pioneering research, and, as its Chief Executive, I’m passionate about scientific research funding in the UK. As of 31 March 2022, our overall research commitments amounted to £6.9m (2021: £6.5m) across 118 research projects at 35 different institutions across the UK.
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank could have dealt a hammer blow to innovative UK research funding. The announcement broke over the weekend, prompting over 200 bosses of UK tech companies to write a letter to chancellor Jeremy Hunt calling for urgent intervention.
The letter said that many would have gone into receivership without that intervention.
HSBC Bank has stepped in with a rescue deal and bought the UK arm of the bank for a nominal sum of £1. Without it, SVB’s collapse would have sent shockwaves through the UK's technology and life sciences sector.
Many firms were customers of the bank’s British business.
Why is it important to fund science in the UK?
The UK government has stated ambitions to make the UK a science superpower. In March 2022, the government announced a £39.8 billion R&D budget for 2022-2025, the largest ever. Priorities include “tackling climate change and investment in new technologies from clean tech to artificial intelligence.”
The UK has a prestigious life science heritage, which we should be proud of and ranks fourth on the Global Innovation Index.
We have world-beating scientists in the UK. I know because Fight for Sight funds many scientists across the UK’s centres of excellence, including at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Newcastle and more (you can see a map in the latest version of Fight for Sight’s annual report).
Research funded by Fight for Sight made possible breakthroughs in choroideremia, glaucoma and Leber congenital amaurosis leading to promising discoveries and potential future treatments. We’re funding research into hundreds of sight loss conditions, many of which have little or no prospect of treatment currently.
Some are difficult to diagnose or detect.
Clinical research backed by England’s national funder, the National Institute for Health Research (2018-19), found that clinical research generated around £2.7 billion of gross value added to the UK economy and an estimated 47,500 jobs. A report by The Russell group said, “the UK’s unparalleled level of charitable investment in research has made a major contribution to the internationally leading work practised within its higher education institutions”.
Sight loss research is underfunded in the UK
Sadly, research into Sight Loss is underfunded. Our Time to Focus report showed just over 1.5 per cent (£24 million) of the £1.4 billion that UK Research and Innovation, government and other public bodies invested in medical research was for eye research in 2018. Yet, sight loss is a significant public health issue of our time.
Then there is the personal impact.
Sight loss affects more than 2.5 million people. Every year, sight loss costs the UK economy more than £25 billion. Someone in the world goes blind every five seconds.
Seven in 10 feel that their eye condition limits their life, and 1 in 5 aren’t getting the support they need to go about their daily lives.
We’re investing in over 100 projects at leading universities and hospitals nationwide, supporting the brightest minds in vision research. The research we fund is getting results, with hundreds of researchers so close to life-changing breakthroughs.
In addition, Fight for Sight is merging with the Vision Foundation. The merger will help us realise a joint ambition to tackle sight loss from a clinical and a social perspective.
Yet, we still need the government to invest more in sight loss research.
The potential impact of more research
Our Time to Focus report shows that investing in sight loss research will pay dividends. Reducing the prevalence of eye conditions by just one per cent each year, we could make a cumulative saving to the UK economy of up to £3 billion over the next decade and £9.5 billion by 2050. It would save NHS and social care services a potential £1.5 billion. Reducing age-related macular degeneration prevalence by one per cent each year could save the UK economy nearly £1.2 billion by 2050. Reducing type 2 diabetes-related diabetic retinopathy prevalence by one per cent each year could save the UK economy over £150 million by 2050.
Now is the time for the government to step up. It should heed this near miss as another sign to review how and where funding for life-changing research is allocated across the UK. The recent budget announcement, including the commitment to invest in cutting-edge science such as Artificial Intelligence, is welcome.
Fight for Sight is already funding UCL’s Dr Pearse Keane – one of the 2022 Top 100 most influential people in ophthalmology. He and his team are using AI to analyse up to 6.3 million eye scans, to improve the diagnosis of dementia and detect a range of other diseases.
Dr Keane and his team will use unique, specialised software to process thousands of patients' retinal images and ophthalmic data. This new technology could be instrumental in identifying patterns of change in the retina associated with dementia, potentially several years before the brain starts showing any signs of altering.