The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has issued another warning about the threat to the UK’s research base in an uncertain regulatory climate and amid the growing challenge from Asian markets.

Last month a survey conducted by the ABPI with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) revealed that 35% of the companies polled expected to cut their investment in research and development (R&D) over the next 12 months, while 46% said they would be conducting fewer clinical trials.

This time the focus is on the industry’s collaborative research links with UK universities. An ABPI survey of 11 UK-based member companies showed that in 2007 there were 606 collaborations between industry and UK universities involving PhD studentships, 9.1% fewer than the 667 collaborations seen in 2005 and 13.7% fewer than in 2003 (702).

Collaborations involving postdoctoral grants were down by 1.8% compared with 2005, from 333 to 327, and by 24.7% against 2003 (432). A total of 78 universities had these types of relationships with ABPI members in 2007.

Most of the decline was down to the larger UK-based companies. Data from AstraZeneca Plc, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Lilly & Co, Novartis Pharmaceuticals UK Ltd, Organon Laboratories Ltd (Schering-Plough), UCB Pharma Ltd and Pfizer Ltd showed that the number of university collaborations involving PhD studentships fell by 4.6% from 627 to 596 between 2005 and 2007, and by 11.8% from the 676 seen in 2003.

There were only 0.6% fewer relationships involving postdoctoral grants in 2007 than in 2005 (325 versus 323) but the number of collaborations was down by 18.2% from 2003 (398).

Many of the collaborations between pharmaceutical companies and UK universities on PhD and postdoctoral research are funded wholly by industry. The total value of collaborations reported in the ABPI’s latest survey was more than £65 million (€82.3 million).

There are three main types of link-up between industry and universities: PhD studentships, where students carry out research projects agreed jointly between a university and a company; postdoctoral grants, where jointly funded research programmes are undertaken by companies and universities, including exchanges of personnel; and industrial placements, where undergraduate students work within companies (usually for one year) as part of their degree studies.

IP issues

According to the ABPI, factors behind the dwindling number of industry-university collaborations include escalating costs and increasing difficulty in negotiating contracts, including the issue of intellectual property ownership.

“While the industry continues to work closely with universities, there is a worrying decline in the level of activity,” commented Dr Philip Wright, ABPI director of science and technology.

“There have been real benefits from these collaborations for both academia and industry, with a two-way flow of skills and knowledge. It has been a ‘win-win’ situation that has been one of the UK’s historical strengths, and Britain can ill afford to have it damaged.”

Given the interdependence between pharmaceutical sector research and academic bioscience, it is critical not only to address these issues but also to restore industry’s overall confidence in the UK as a place to conduct research, the ABPI warned, citing the “worryingly low level” of confidence found in the recent CBI/ABPI survey.

“With increasing competition for biomedical leadership from Asian economies, it is vital that Government and industry unite to restore confidence and maximise the UK’s chances in the global race for pharmaceutical innovation,” commented ABPI director general Dr Richard Barker.