UK Pharma Warns that skills shortage and Brexit will hit R&D

1 February 2019

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

In addition to the ongoing skills shortage in key disciplines, post-Brexit curbs on immigration could limit the UK's supply of overseas science undergraduates, significantly damaging the UK’s pharma and biotech industries.

The message accompanies a new survey of UK pharma's clinical research leaders, which found the sector struggling to fuel their ongoing efforts in biomedical innovation. The survey of 56 respondents across 30 different pharma and CRO companies revealed a shortfall in candidates across STEM subjects, especially in a number of key cutting-edge disciplines, such as immunology, genomics and bioinformatics/computational systems biology.

The figures reveal that there has been a surge in foreign students taking up STEM undergraduate places in UK universities, which the country has come to rely on to fuel its life sciences industry. The number of EU students studying here rose 52% over the last decade, 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 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 we are vying to be Europe’s premier biotech cluster and second only to the US,” said Sheuli Porkess, deputy chief scientific officer at the ABPI. “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.”

To address the skills gap, the ABPI has proposed a number of measures to support the sector. This includes working with allied organisations to encourage young people to pursue STEM careers. The ABPI is also recommending to the Home Office that clinical pharmacology should be added to the shortage occupation list, and suggest that the list should be updated more frequently to react to the fast-paced life science landscape.

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