Despite the drive towards externalisation of research and development and the pressing need to tap into new sources of innovation, a survey by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has found significantly fewer partnerships between companies and academia in 2011 than two years previously.

The survey identified 1,199 such partnerships in total last year, 11% fewer than the 1,348 recorded by the ABPI for 2009. In 2007 there were 1,463 industry-academic partnerships overall across the UK.

One reason for the decline, the ABPI’s report –  Enriching research, training scientists – suggests, resides in the externalisation trend itself and its economic underlay.

As “partnerships and outsourcing of research and development have increased, the in-house capacity of many pharmaceutical companies has decreased, leading to some sites closing and fewer scientists being employed at others,” it comments.

“These changes have impacted on the capacity of companies based in the UK to support undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral training.”

Industrial placements

Particularly marked has been the fall in the number of undergraduate industrial placements – from 530 in 2007 to 355 in 2009 and 268 in 2011.

Again, there is an economic context to this, the ABPI’s report notes: “Placements are normally of one year’s duration, and require intensive supervision at first, so capacity to take students will be rapidly affected by any change to the number of scientists employed”.

Industrial placements are “highly valued as training for a research career in both industry and academia”, so the decline in the number of placements gives cause for concern, the ABPI acknowledges.

“It is hoped that smaller companies and contract research organisations (CROs) will increase the number of placements they offer to partly offset the decline in placements from large companies,” the report comments.

It also welcomes recommendations in the recently published Wilson Review of Business-University Collaboration for measures to encourage students to take up placements and companies to offer them.

“Other bodies, including the Cogent Sector Skills Council and the Royal Society of Chemistry, share these concerns and are proposing actions to encourage more companies to offer placements,” the ABPI adds.

Post-doctoral and PhDs

While the number of post-doctoral partnerships supported by industry was down to 287 in 2011 from 384 in 2009, there were substantially more PhD partnerships – 644 last year versus 609 in 2009.

The ABPI report puts this “apparent increase” down to the longer duration of partnerships, with 65% of studentships now funded for four rather than three years. “Hence, while there has not been a real increase in the numbers of PhD students funded by industry, there has been an increase in the level of support for PhD training.”

Research Councils also provide substantial support for studentships, the report points out. Companies surveyed identified the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council as the funding partner for 32% of studentships, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for 20% and the Medical Research Council for 11%.

The UK’s achievements in drug development and the training of scientists are recognised worldwide, the report says.