AstraZeneca is shelling out £330 million to establish a new R&D hub and global headquarters in Cambridge, UK, but the news marks the end of its 40-year research stint at Alderley Park, Cheshire, as well as a cull of around 700 jobs.
The move - the first major initiative from chief executive Pascal Soriot - comes under wider plans to invest in strategic R&D centres in the UK, the US and Sweden, as the company strives to boost pipeline productivity and establish itself as a key player in biopharmaceutical innovation.
According to the firm, positioning more of its scientists within "globally recognised bioscience clusters" will facilitate access to "world-class talent and opportunities for collaboration and partnerships", as well as simplify operations and eliminate unnecessary cost.
Explaining the firm's attraction to Cambridge in particular, Soriot said it is "a world-renowned bioscience hotspot that rivals the likes of San Francisco and Boston", which has strong links with London-based research institutions.
He also applauded the "meaningful policies" put in place by the government to encourage investment and ensure the country's competitiveness as a destination for R&D.
But, in what is being described as a massive blow to North West England, the consequence of the firm's move to Cambridge is its diminished presence at Alderley Park, at which R&D operations will cease over the next three years with the transfer of around 1,600 staff, as well as nationwide job losses numbering around 700.
Unite, Britain's biggest union, has accused AstraZeneca of creating a skills crisis in the north west by "draining the region of highly skilled research and development jobs in the middle of an economic downturn".
"Unite will be meeting with the company to demand that AstraZeneca rethinks this decision and looks at alternatives to relocation," said national officer Linda McCulloch, adding that the union will also be contacting local MPs "to urge them to intervene".
Committed to the North West
AstraZeneca said it remains "strongly committed to the North West of England, stressing that some 3,000 employees will remain at Alderley Park, its Macclesfield manufacturing site and the MedImmune vaccine manufacturing facility in Speke.
Elsewhere, the firms plans were welcomed by science minister David Willetts, who said its decision to invest in a "world-leading" R&D facility in Cambridge is "a real vote of confidence in the UK life sciences sector".
“Clearly the decision to reduce R&D activity at Alderley Park is disappointing," he said, but noted that the government will work closely with the pharma and local partners "to ensure this excellent facility has a prosperous future with new opportunities for the site".
As such, a taskforce - jointly led by Chris Brinsmead, the Government’s Life Sciences Champion, and Clive Morris, a Vice President of AstraZeneca - will be established to help support Alderley Park staff and the local economy during the transition and ensure "a sustainable, thriving future for the site".
Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said AstraZeneca’s plans are welcome news for the UK, underlining its status "as a leader in life sciences", and he voiced support for the government’s decision to create the taskforce to ensure the facilities at Alderley Park "are used to their fullest in future".