Addressing the skills shortage in life sciences

How can collaboration help to fill the life sciences skills shortage gap to ensure that the UK can compete in the global future?

The Topol Review* of digital training needs for the NHS was published in February 2019, and according to the review, cross-sector collaboration is vital to the future success of medicines development. But this can only be achieved if there is enough scientific talent coming up through the ranks to cement the UK’s place in the global health marketplace – and collaboration could be key to addressing the problem.

The future depends on a sufficient number of students studying the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects that are vital to facilitate the discovery of the advanced technologies and treatments that will shape the future success of the UK’s pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors and cement the part that the UK plays on a global scale. The ABPI recently warned that the UK is falling behind Europe in nurturing the students who could fill these highly-skilled scientific roles. If the situation is not addressed as a matter of urgency, a skills shortage could result as talented people move to other parts of the world.

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 figures around the skills gap came from the ABPI’s latest biennial survey of member pharmaceutical companies, and analysed the challenges of recruiting suitably qualified and experienced staff.

Writing the foreword to the skills gap analysis, the ABPI’s Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Carole Longson, said that the UK’s current position as a leading global hub in life sciences is in large part driven by ‘the quality of our UK workforce with outstanding skills and talents in companies, universities and, of course, the NHS’. The Topol Review addresses the importance of this cross-sector collaboration, which author Eric Topol, a cardiologist, geneticist, and digital medicine expert, says is vital for the future of the health service. He adds that our workforce must adapt its skill set to the rapidly evolving technologies coming down the line.

“Progress in meeting these challenges will be most effectively addressed through collaboration across industry, NHS and academia”

Although it focused solely on the biopharmaceutical industry, the ABPI report also identified genomics as a crucial priority and a swiftly evolving field, as far as industry skills needs lie. The use of genomics is the force behind a new age of medicines discovery and offers a host of benefits to patients’ health. Other areas of need identified in the report and in the Topol Review were:

• informatics
• computational disciplines
• immunology
• clinical pharmacology
• core training in genomic literacy
• career pathways for bioinformaticians
• expansion of undergraduate capacity in genomics
• bioinformatics
• data science.

Together these reports highlight the need for a substantial increase in availability of cross-disciplinary talent to feed the needs of a world where increasingly patients are better informed and take more ownership of their care.

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The ABPI also committed to ‘convene key partners in healthcare and industry to identify opportunities to improve support focused on research and innovation for medics throughout their training and career, e.g. developing ABPI’s careers resource into a new joint portal that will support, amongst others, medical students with their career’.

Alex Felthouse, Science Industry Partnership (SIP) Board member and 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, to responding with a ground-breaking Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy.”

The second Life Sciences Industrial Strategy Sector Deal made commitments to working with Health Education England to align industry’s support for work on medical careers with the Topol Review, and the ABPI says that it is now ready to begin taking the work forward.

“The UK has the potential to be a world-leader in healthcare technology and in medicines and vaccines research and development,” says Andrew Croydon, Director of Skills and Education Policy at the ABPI. “This is an exciting area of science 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.

“It is logical that progress in meeting these challenges will be most effectively addressed through collaboration across industry, NHS and academia.”

Future ready

To help build a workforce able to research, develop and manufacture the medicines of tomorrow, the ABPI made the following recommendations:

  1. Clinical pharmacology should be on the Home Office shortage occupation list, and for the list to be reviewed more regularly so we can react to shortages more quickly (as part of the Clinical Pharmacology Skills Alliance (CPSA)).
  2. Create the standards for a new high level Clinical Pharmacology Scientist apprenticeship together with the CPSA, which has now been approved for the development by the Institute of Apprenticeships (as part of the CPSA).
  3. Align and work with organisations including the British Science Association to encourage more young people into STEM subjects at university and helping support a new government-funded competition for young people.


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