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Willetts picks rising star as life sciences adviser

Businessman MP to improve industry and academia interaction

A Conservative MP with strong links to the farming industry has been appointed by science minister David Willetts as an unpaid life-sciences adviser.

George Freeman, MP for Mid Norfolk and part of the 2010 intake, will advise Willetts on industry, economic growth, innovation, and improving communication with business and academia. He will also help the government create a 5 to 10-year strategy for the life sciences. Freeman is Parliamentary Private Secretary to Greg Barker, the Conservative minister for climate change, and also chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture. He is expected to retain both roles.

According to a spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Freeman will not keep set working hours and, as a personal appointment to Willetts, he will not need to be “independent”.

The appointment was announced just before Parliament’s summer recess in July.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Freeman said: “I’ll be working with a particular remit in two things; understanding and anticipating the latest trends in biomedicine…and helping the minister and government to reach out and open channels of communication with people at the cutting edge of the sector.”

In particular, the 44-year-old MP says he hopes to connect researchers and those in the life-sciences industry who don’t have well-established channels of communication, for example through the trade associations.

Freeman’s experience includes working as a policy officer with the National Farmers Union and running a biotech venture capital firm. Six years ago he founded a translational medicine consultancy, 4-D Biomedical. He sits on the advisory board of the Norwich Research Park and is a non-executive director of Elsoms Seeds; experience he says he will use to expand the government’s view of life sciences beyond medicine.

“From an agricultural background, I think there’s huge opportunity for the UK in a broader definition of life sciences, including biomedicine but also clean tech, food and plant sciences,” he says.

Freeman speaks regularly in the Commons on the need for a “rational debate” on genetically modified foods. The government’s Global Food and Farming Futures report, he says “made very clear… food, medicine and green tech are going to be three of the biggest markets in the world.”

The appointment brings to the government business and life-science experience last seen at a ministerial level in the previous Labour government’s science minister, Paul Drayson.

According to the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan, the move enables Freeman to advise at a ministerial level, without making him a minister. “He’ll still be a backbench MP and parliamentary private secretary but potentially have an influential role in policymaking in BIS,” he says.

Across the life sciences, reaction to Freeman’s appointment has been positive, with business representatives expressing “delight” at the move. “George has considerable business experience in our sector and will bring a lot of passion and this business acumen to his role,” says Nigel Gaymond, chief executive of the BioIndustry Association, in an emailed statement.

Chief executive of the Society of Biology, Mark Downs was more cautious. He told Research Fortnight that while he welcomes Freeman’s commitment to expanding the life sciences beyond medicine, he would like to know how Freeman will work alongside Chris Brinsmead, the government’s life sciences business adviser, based in the Office of Life Sciences.

“I also think it’s important that societies like ours…keep making the point that we need both the applied translational work and basic science, because both of [Willetts’] advisers at the moment are from a business perspective,” he says.

As a PPS, Freeman is prevented by the Ministerial Code from voting against the government or associating himself “with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the government”, which BIS says does not present a conflict of interest.