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The potential of technological innovation is dazzling, but a policy focus on the wider determinants of health is likely to prove as, if not more, important in shaping quality of life for the UK’s population.

With the arrival of Covid-19, medical science was cast in a starring role as new technologies enabled the rapid sequencing of millions of cases and pioneering RNA research facilitated the creation of new vaccines.

Similarly impressive developments are now becoming commonplace across a range of frontiers. Eye-catching breakthroughs in the last few years include the AI-based Alphafold protein database (which should equip life science researchers with powerful tools for understanding disease and drug discovery) and brain-computer interfaces (which could have a range of applications including for those recovering from spinal injuries).

The UK’s life science industry is well-positioned to be an increasingly important economic asset in the years ahead. Last year the sector attracted £4.5bn in investment, compared to just £261m in 2012. The R&D potential is considerable if the UK can successfully combine the strengths of its universities with the unique opportunities for clinical trials and data collection afforded by a centralised health system like the NHS.

Yet scientific innovation and medtech alone will not deliver better health and longer life - indeed uneven access to the benefits of new discoveries could serve to further entrench health inequalities over time. In practice, cutting-edge treatments could prove costly and the NHS may struggle to meet demand alongside continuing to invest in preventative healthcare. Policymakers have long struggled to find effective levers to tackle the wider social and environmental causes of disease, as the long-term influence of these factors is often hidden from view such as housing or employment.

If medical science holds out the promise of rapid innovations in the treatment of disease and extension of healthy life, how might we ensure these benefits are widely distributed? Amongst the pitches for the Minister’s attention is Professor James Kirkland’s proposal for an international CERN-like effort to power scientific discoveries on age-related diseases. Following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking effort to map the human genome, there is a call from Tina Woods to map the so-called ‘exposome’ - the environmental causes of disease. Perhaps most ambitiously, Professor Dame Sally Davies offers up a vision for a National Health Bank focused on preventative measures to safeguard the nation’s most vital asset - the health of its population.

Better than well was published as part of Minister for the Future, bold new thinking on the long-term issues policymakers can't afford to ignore, in partnership with Prospect. Illustrations by Ian Morris.

A National Health Bank to invest in prevention

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We need a Cern-like effort to power an extension in healthy life

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Make the UK a living lab for mapping the exposome

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