A talent gap in the scientific workforce has biopharmaceutical companies searching outside for fresh skills and alternate approaches to R&D staffing, according to a new report.

New R&D organisational models based on partnerships, alliances and even crowd sourcing are changing talent needs, challenging traditional talent management strategies and redefining the role of human resources (HR) in R&D productivity, says the study, from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Health Research Institute (HRI).

PwC points out that the knowledge-intensive pharmaceutical industry had the highest reported difficulty in hiring top talent out of the 19 industries featured in the firm's 2012 Global CEO Survey; chief executives identified talent gaps as one of the biggest threats to future growth prospects.

Research for the HRI report, including a survey of HR and R&D executives at US biopharmaceutical companies, finds 51% of industry executives reporting that hiring has become increasingly difficult and only 28% feeling very confident that they will have access to top talent. 72% of the executives also told the survey that their organisations are looking to increase R&D capacity over the next 12 months, while 60% intend to increase investments over the next three years to create a more skilled workforce.

"The scientific community produces the golden eggs of medical scientific discovery, and as biopharmaceutical companies aggressively overhaul their R&D engines, they also must create an environment where the source of innovation can thrive," says Michael Mantesana, US pharmaceuticals and life sciences R&D advisory services leader at PwC.

"Scientists are driven by the chance to tackle tough problems, but not when they are operating in a pressure-cooker environment with incentives that aren't well-aligned with company goals or their own sense of satisfaction. Real R&D transformation will not be complete until the R&D culture itself is rebooted and unless HR, R&D and senior management work together from the beginning," he adds.

One in three US biopharmaceutical companies has revamped its approach to R&D, looking to boost productivity by reconfiguring R&D operations and organisational structures, increasing their focus on biologics and/or seeking partnerships and alliances outside their organisations, says the report.

The two most common outside partnerships which they have been pursuing are with academic medical centres and third parties such as contract research organisations (CROs). Some are also teaming up with traditional competitors through consortia, alliances with foundations, crowd sourcing and other relationships that enable them to build R&D capacity and share risks and rewards with external partners.

The HRI survey of industry executives finds that the most-needed skill in R&D over the next three years will be the ability to develop and manage outside partnerships, while coming a close second is the need for skills in regulatory science to help with new rules and regulations. Bioinformatics and health economics outcomes research will also be in greater deman,d as companies must be able to prove, with real-world data, that their products improve health or reduce overall healthcare costs.

These skills have not been part of typical scientific training, but a new breed of cross-trained scientists is emerging, says HRI. Star scientists in the new R&D culture are likely to be those who have dual degrees in science and business or experience in management, quality and clinical operations.

The survey also finds that few biopharmaceutical organisations have adopted innovative programmes to encourage R&D productivity, such as intellectual property sharing or sales royalties; 80% still rely on traditional bonuses.