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Skills shortage and Brexit will hit R&D, warns UK pharma

Skill shortages and Brexit seen as greatest threat


The UK is in danger of losing its world-leading research and development status, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has warned, backed by the country's two biggest pharma investors, AstraZeneca and GSK.

Along with an existing skills shortage in key disciplines, also worrying the sector are proposed post-Brexit curbs on immigration which could limit the UK's supply of overseas science undergraduates - damaging not only universities, but also the country's world class pharma and biotech industries.

The message accompanies a new survey of UK pharma's clinical research leaders, which finds the sector struggling to find homegrown and overseas students skilled in the cutting-edge science subjects needed to fuel the next wave of biomedical innovation.

The survey of 56 respondents across 30 different pharma and CRO companies, which revealed concerned about a shortfall in candidates across STEM subjects, but especially in a number of key cutting-edge disciplines, including immunology, genomics and bioinformatics/computational systems biology.

The number of UK undergraduates studying STEM subjects in the country's universities increased by 16% over the last decade (compared to an overall increase across all subjects of 13%) a very welcome increase.

However the figures reveal that there has been a much bigger surge in foreign students taking up STEM undergraduate places in UK universities - something that the country has come to rely on to fuel its life sciences industry. The number of EU students studying here rose 52% over the same period, while the increase in overseas students from all other non-EU countries was even higher at 63%.


Sheuli Porkess, Deputy Chief Scientific Officer at the ABPI (pictured) said: “The Government has set out ambitious targets for increased R&D spend in the UK - including by business – but for this to succeed we must have access to highly skilled people.

"UK science and academia are the envy of the world and the we are vying to be Europe’s premier biotech cluster and second only to the US.  But we are seeing a decline in R&D investment.  If we don’t address the skills shortages our status as a world-leading R&D hub we may see even more research - and with it highly skilled jobs - move abroad.  This would be bad news for NHS patients and the UK economy."

Andrew Miles, UK General Manager and SVP UK and Ireland Pharmaceuticals, GSK said: “The pace of medicines development is faster than ever before, and the skills required are complex and often overlap. Scientists of today need to be able to integrate computer skills with biological and chemical skills. The future of medicines development is exciting and we want young people in the UK to be equipped to lead this work, alongside other countries such as Germany, France and China who are all making strides in developing advanced treatments and technologies for patients.”

Pharma is a major contributor to the UK’s economy, however investment in R&D fell by 22% between 2011 and 2016. This most likely reflects significant headcount losses at big employers such as AstraZeneca, GSK and Pfizer, but the scale of this decline is alarming.

“We have long been concerned by the skills gap in clinical pharmacology,” said Dr Anna Zecharia, Director of Policy at the British Pharmacological Society.

“These skills are crucial for leading research and clinical trials, and for ensuring the best healthcare for patients. As a sector, we must work to raise the profile of this high-level and exciting career and make potential candidates aware of the many opportunities available to them. At a global level, attracting and nurturing highly skilled candidates will support the UK in consolidating its ambitions is a leader in the life sciences”

The survey identified Brexit identified as the most critical threat to job growth in the UK, highlighting genomics, immunology, bioinformatics and clinical pharmacology as areas that might struggle to attract and retain talent.

To bridge the skills gap, the ABPI has unveiled concrete measures to support the sector. This includes working with allied organisations to inspire more young people to pursue STEM careers. It is also recommending to the Home Office that clinical pharmacology should be added to the shortage occupation list, and says that list should be updated more frequently to react to the fast-moving science landscape.

There is no question that Brexit could act as a deterrent to overseas undergraduates and graduates coming to the UK, as the government has interpreted the 2016 referendum vote to mean migration numbers need to be cut. The government introduced its post-Brexit immigration bill to the Commons this week, and insist only 'low-skilled' migrants filling positions with salaries less than £30,000 would face restrictions - something which opponents say will hit NHS staff recruitment.

The UK parliament has yet to agree on any Brexit 'divorce' deal, and ongoing uncertainty about their future status and funding for research is inevitably curbing interest from overseas workers in life sciences and other sectors.

Read the ABPI report here:  Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry: Maintaining the UK’s leading position in life sciences

Article by
Gemma Jones

31st January 2019

From: Research



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