ABPI urges the UK to address the skills shortage in STEM

Highly skilled scientific roles could move elsewhere if the situation is not addressed as a matter of urgency

The Association of the British pharmaceutical industry, ABPI, has released "Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry (2019)", its latest survey looking at the challenges of recruiting suitably qualified and experienced staff.

The study revealed that the UK is falling behind Europe and the rest of the world in terms of numbers of students studying many STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) vital for discovering the advanced treatments and technologies of the future.

For ABPI, these highly-skilled scientific roles —vital to the UK’s successful pharmaceutical and biotech sectors— could move to other parts of the world if the situation is not addressed as a matter of urgency.

Survey results

According to the survey, despite the number of UK undergraduates studying STEM subjects increasing by 16% over the last decade (compared to an overall increase across all subjects of 13%) undergraduate numbers for EU students increased by 52% and non-EU students (worldwide) increased by 63%.

The new evidence comes as the UK seeks to protect its position as a hub for global life-sciences as it leaves the European Union.

Professor Carole Longson, MBE, Chief Scientific Officer at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry

Along with the skills shortages, respondents identified Brexit as the most critical threat to job growth in the UK, in an industry which invests significantly more in R&D than any other sector.

The report shows areas of significant concern, as identified by over 30 companies:

  • Genomics – sequencing and analysis of the human genome to understand how to develop new treatments for diseases
  • Immunology - the study of disease caused by disorders of the immune system, vital for the protection of infectious diseases
  • Bioinformatics and Chemoinformatics – the science of using software tools to understand biological and chemical data to help develop new treatments
  • Clinical pharmacology - experts working at the cutting edge of real-world data and clinical trials to help maximize the positive effects of a medicine and minimize the unwanted side effects.

Andrew Miles, UK General Manager and SVP UK and Ireland Pharmaceuticals, GSK, commented: “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.”

R&D ambition

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

"If we don’t address the skills shortages our status as a world-leading R&D hub we may see even more research, and highly skilled jobs, move abroad. This would be bad news for NHS patients and the UK economy."

STEM training

Dr Anna Zecharia, Director of Policy at the British Pharmacological Society, commented: “We have long been concerned by the skills gap in clinical pharmacology, as identified in the ABPI’s report.

"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”

To help future proof the UK’s medicines R&D workforce, the ABPI has set up a strategy, which includes:

  • Working with allied organisations, including the British Science Association, to inspire more young people to pursue STEM careers, such as through the content we are delivering to support a new government-funded competition for young people.
  • Recommending to the Home Office that Clinical Pharmacology be added to the shortage occupation list, and that the Home Office review the shortage occupation list more frequently to be able to react quickly to the fast-moving science landscape.
  • Actively involved in the development of standards for a new high-level Clinical Pharmacology Scientist apprenticeship.

Commenting on the results, Alex Felthouse, Science Industry Partnership (SIP) Board member Managing Director of Eisai Manufacturing Ltd, said: “The Science Industry Partnership is delighted to welcome the ABPI’s updated Skills Survey report, providing the sector with further evidence on skills, as it prepares for a future outside the EU.

"The SIP looks forward to collaborating with the ABPI and the BioIndustry Association (BIA), to responding with a ground-breaking Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy.

"This will build a clear evidence base of the status of life science skills and future scenarios to 2030, focusing on medicines manufacturing and advanced therapies as well as emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence.”

The pharmaceutical industry remains by far the industry with the highest investment in R&D in the UK at £4.1 billion per year (in 2016), but this fell 22% in real terms between 2011 and 2016, the most recent figures available.

The UK pharmaceutical industry currently employs 63,000, down from 70,000 in 2015, with 24,000 devoted to R&D. Apprenticeships in the pharmaceutical industry are up 169% since 2013.

ABPI represents innovative research-based biopharmaceutical companies, large, medium and small, leading a new era of biosciences in the UK.

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