The pharmaceutical industry in the UK is “at a tipping point” in terms of accessing the core laboratory and mathematical skills needed to sustain a flourishing research and development base and compete with the emerging skills base in lower-cost markets such China, India and Singapore, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has warned.

“If we want to maintain the pharmaceutical industry’s leading R&D position in the UK, and its strong position internationally, the key factor is the human factor,” commented president Chris Brinsmead in a new ABPI report, 'Skills Needs for Biomedical Research: creating the pools of talent to win the innovation race'. “We need to find the best people and develop them,” he added.

The publication is a follow-up to the ABPI’s November 2005 report, 'Sustaining the Skills Pipeline in the Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical Industries', which raised a number of issues around the quality, number and supply of key scientific disciplines that had historically been among the UK’s strengths. There has been real progress on some of areas of concern highlighted in that report, such as the government’s announcement last year of a Science Diploma for 14-19 year-olds, the association noted.

Where higher-level skills are concerned, though, the response from funders of Higher Education (HE), both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, has been “somewhat patchy”, the ABPI said. “In particular we have been disappointed by the apparent disparity between the strategic priorities of the Government and the response of both the universities and HE funding mechanisms.”

The skills survey undertaken by the ABPI for the new report, with the help of the BioIndustry Association, made it “quite clear that there has been little progress with many disciplines of critical concern to the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industry”, the ABPI pointed out. “While timelines are short between the two surveys, time is also running out.”

In the field of core skills cutting across all scientific disciplines, there is particular concern about basic mathematical capabilities, practical skills and ability to apply scientific and mathematical knowledge.

In terms of core skills, the ABPI reported, the UK clearly has “a substantive skills deficit in biomedical sciences, many of which are at the heart of translational medicine or are key to the commercialisation of research” – namely in:

- clinical pharmacology/experimental medicine;
- drug metabolism and ADME (the absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion of medicines);
- pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics and modelling;
- in vivo sciences and supporting animal technologies;
- chemical and process engineering
- statistics
- computational chemistry

The ABPI report made three new recommendations for action to fill these gaps:

_ The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) should establish a High-Level Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) Strategy Group (as already exists in the Department for Children, Schools and Families) by mid-2009, bringing together the key funders, industry, scientific institutes and academia to ensure a co-ordinated approach to developing a pool of UK talent that can realise the Innovation Nation agenda. A National Stem Director for Higher Education should be appointed to oversee and co-ordinate actions.

_ The Cabinet Committee on Science and Innovation should review the mechanism for reacting to and funding strategically important skills and disciplines, and take action to ensure it is transparent and responsive to the needs of the scientific community in both the public and private sectors. The proposed High-Level STEM Strategy Group for HE should also play a substantive role in this review and in the subsequent identification of strategically important subjects.

_ A number of actions designed to enhance core skills and disciplines, such as implementing the 14-19 Science Diploma, augmenting the funding formula for teaching practical science courses in universities and increasing, with appropriate funding, provision for four-year integrated Masters in biological sciences.

If the current trend continues, warned Dr Philip Wright, director of Science and Technology at the ABPI, “the UK stands to lose an industry that contributes billions of pounds to its economy every year and the UK academic base will not be sustainable in the long term”.