Fit for the Future: Can you fill the life sciences skills gap?

Alex Felthouse explores the life sciences skills gap and how big data and informatics will underpin the future success of our sector.

Over the last century, we have witnessed a series of technologies that have changed and continue to change our world in unimaginable ways. Without many of the medical discoveries and inventions from the life sciences sector, few of us would enjoy the health and lifespan we experience today. Thanks to our medicine and treatments, many illnesses and diseases have been eliminated – and what were once serious illnesses are now relatively mild.

More broadly, many technologies, have caused a real step change in the way our economies and our lives function and looking further back throughout history, we can now see how such new approaches and discoveries have impacted on our societies.

These phases are now presented as the “four industrial revolutions” and have always led to the development of new skills; history tells us that the companies and organisations that embrace these new skills find themselves at great advantage.

For the life science sector, such advantage also translates into new treatments and approaches that deliver benefit to mankind.

Despite the tremendous advances we have made, there is no doubt that the introduction of machine learning and more broadly, artificial intelligence (AI) is enabling scientists to use information in a way that was previously impossible. We can mine millions of documents and generate new hypotheses linking targets to disease and build new systems that allow us to produce better molecules, in a fraction of the time it has traditionally taken.

The potential to treat and cure many of the intractable diseases and conditions that still prevail, underpins the ongoing mission of our industry

Role of data in life sciences

The Science Industry Partnership (SIP) is an alliance of employers who have taken ownership of the skills needed to generate innovation and growth and increase productivity in the life sciences sector.  We are striving to keep ahead of this change curve on skills.

Through our Skills Strategy 2025, the SIP identified that big data and informatics will underpin the future success of our sector.

Without doubt, data science in its widest sense and effective data mining is now a critically important technology across the life sciences sector. Indeed, according to PwC’s 20th Chief Executive Survey, a major trend on the minds of global chief executives is that business growth will increasingly come from prioritised investment in innovation, and digital capabilities (23%), growth and corporate profitability will no longer be supported through traditional methods or business models alone.

Its survey states that “CEOs are working to bridge the gaps in their own capabilities. Organisations are struggling to translate a deluge of data into better decision making. There is a shortage of skilled talent to clean, integrate, and extract value from big data and move beyond baby steps toward AI.”

All the signs are there: business is taking this very seriously.

Life sciences skills gaps

SIP members from the life sciences sector now want to take their own understanding and analysis to the next stage, and, equally importantly, develop an action plan to close what has the potential to be a serious skills gap.

It has recently commenced a Life Sciences 2030 Skills Strategy which will build a clear evidence base of the status of life science skills and future scenarios to 2030. This will focus on R&D, medicines manufacturing and their associated supply and service chains, with a view to understanding the pivotal role emerging technologies, including AI, will play and, in turn, identify what is needed in addition to current available training provision.

The Strategy is taking shape under the leadership of the SIP Futures Group, which I am Chairing and includes representation from members including Pfizer, ABPI, OLS, Eisai, Kymab, Cogent Skills, Vertex, Covance, UCB and Steer ED, the expert consultants appointed to undertake the comprehensive analysis work required.

The Futures Group has now endorsed four key research areas:

  • Assessment and identification of the skills demand for research and development activities.
  • Analysis of the skills requirements for medicines manufacturing, including established and complex medicines.
  • Undertaking a detailed gap analysis of the delivery of vocational skills, including availability of apprenticeship provision against the required demand.
  • A study of the post-Brexit UK workforce skills capacity and needs, highlighting areas of shortage.

The study will also undertake an analysis of the Global Operating Environment focusing on Asia and America to help us to look ahead and understand the international skills drivers.

Underpinning this work will, therefore, be three cross cutting themes which sit across the entire life science workforce, and for which a deeper understanding is paramount in developing an Action Plan for Skills: business and technology drivers, training provision and global workforce mobility.

The three cross cutting themes which sit across the entire life science workforce

Filling the life sciences skills gap

In essence, the skilled people required by the sector will need to come directly from education or from other related sectors and structured, high-quality training will be essential in achieving this goal. The onus is on the life sciences industry to attract people into the sector, recognising today’s workforce is far more mobile than in previous years.

We need a digital and data savvy workforce, we need to ensure re-skilling is standard practice and we require fit-for-purpose and blended vocational and academic pathways and provision. We also need to see many more apprenticeships in our sector – particularly as we now have a range of new employer-developed Standards from Level 2 through to Masters.

The newly published Bioinformatics Scientist Standard at Level 7 is a great example of a pioneering new approach to applied learning at the higher level.

Such Degree Apprenticeships combine work, on-the-job learning and funded part-time university education. These new programmes comprise a combination of mentored workplace learning, practical experience and separate study, and lead to a university degree.

Our life sciences skills strategy will also support us to develop an approach to skills to identify provision gaps that are resulting in the need to look outside the UK for the skills essential for growth. Industry needs access to essential home-grown skills, not always available in the UK; maintaining expertise and scientific knowledge in innovation and research will be key in the future.

Ultimately, if educational institutions, employers and individuals aren’t keeping up with these dramatic changes, our workforce will be left behind. Our 2030 Research Strategy makes it a priority to better understand these gaps and the next task will be to deliver solutions and approaches that close them.

Our sector’s ability to handle ‘Big Data’ will no doubt continue to give it the edge – ultimately supporting the innovation required to improve the health and social outcomes of the billions of people who depend on the therapies and technologies we advance.