Big Pharma warns scientific skills shortage could hold Britain back

Throughout the tough times faced by the British biopharma industry, the country could always point to its scientific excellence as a source of pride. Now, with more money swilling around, the sector should be enjoying better days, yet as financial woes have receded another resource shortage has come into view: The United Kingdom appears to be running low on scientists.

U.K. Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) flagged up its concerns after polling 93 people from 59 different companies about the staffing situation in Britain. Responses came from representatives of British biopharma stalwarts AstraZeneca ($AZN) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), plus employees of Novartis ($NVS), Pfizer ($PFE) and other companies that have cut their U.K. operations in recent years. The data show more than 50% of respondents think there is an urgent need to improve the availability of staff in 10 discipline areas.

ABPI found the industry is most concerned about the availability of people with expertise in clinical pharmacology, bioinformatics and statistics. The shortage of people with clinical pharmacology and translational medicine experience is a long-standing problem in the U.K., with ABPI having identified it as an issue when it last ran a skills survey in 2008. If the U.K. is to become a major proving ground for new medicines, something the government has suggested it wants to achieve, then it needs to have a workforce than can run effective early-phase studies.

Many of the other major concerns cited by respondents reflect the evolution of the skills needed to run a drug development and manufacturing organization. Bioinformatics is one of five computational and mathematical disciplines in the list of top priorities generated in the survey. Many of these fields has gone from being non-issues in 2008 to pressing concerns today. "Companies find it difficult to recruit individuals with the right set of skills and relevant experience. Skills in this area are in high demand in various industry sectors and academia across the globe," ABPI wrote.

The comments about the lack of experienced candidates for senior positions and global competition for such workers hit at a big issue for the industry. In a foreword to the report, U.K. life sciences minister George Freeman talks up the need to establish policies that yield workers with the right skills. It takes time for such plans to deliver, though. Experience cannot be gained overnight. Nations often look abroad to fill such pressing shortages, but with the government aiming to "significantly" cut the level of economic migration from outside the European Union this may prove tricky.

Leaders of the U.K. tech sector have already warned the immigration plan may "hurt" their industry. The tech and biopharma industries may find it even harder to hire from overseas if the U.K. votes to leave the EU at the upcoming referendum. Citizens of EU countries can move work across the region. As such, there are few bureaucratic barriers to stop British businesses from hiring the cream of the continent's talent. Leaving the EU would re-establish barriers between the U.K. and Europe and in doing so raise doubts about the chances of the 'golden triangle' becoming a global biopharma hub.

- read the report (PDF)