Future of pharma requires more digital talent

New report finds the UK’s life science sector needs more experienced staff with digital skills to support R&D and advanced medicines manufacturing.

Digital technology/digitalisation in pharma concept - hands cracking open a pharmaceutical capsule and releasing its contents

According to a new report by The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), the UK is making strong progress in addressing the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills shortage in the pharma industry; however, now needs more experiences staff with digital skills.

According to George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the report is a “blueprint for how Government and industry can work together to grow the life sciences talent base.”

Informed by interviews and surveys with pharmaceutical companies ‘Bridging the Skills Gap in the Biopharmaceutical Industry’ finds a mixed picture for the sector’s skill and job shortages. 

The analysis reveals that general skills gaps have narrowed, with rapid improvements in areas such as biological and chemical science. Similarly, gaps in the core skills of scientific knowledge, communication and problem-solving have also improved.

However, some areas of concern remain. The ‘top priority’ areas identified by pharma companies included informatics, computational, mathematical and statistical skills, with shortages reported in five of the seven top priorities. The findings show the sector needs more experienced staff with the digital skills required for sophisticated R&D, as well as advanced medicines manufacturing.

Across most subject areas, such as biological, chemical, clinical and computational disciplines, there were also concerns about the quantity of candidates in the pipeline and thus, companies’ ability to recruit experienced staff. 

The report also, for the first time, puts forward four explicit sector commitments to help improve the skills picture. The industry promises to:

  • Support universities and raise awareness of the sector as an attractive employer to boost digital skills
  • Launch an updated, dedicated platform of free, high quality, up-to-date STEM resources supporting all key stages for UK curricula to support long-term attainment and drive achievement
  • Conduct further research into recruitment and retention of experienced staff and why this is proving a challenge for the sector
  • Continue to address industry identified areas for action for securing a sustainable skills pipeline, as part of the Futures Group formed as part of Sector Deal 2

Andrew Croydon, Skills & Education Policy Director at ABPI, stated: “The pandemic is being fought by skilled experts, scientists and researchers, whose innovations and breakthroughs are supporting NHS staff on the front line. Having the right system in place to teach and upskill passionate individuals to pursue science careers is vital if we are to be ready for the next one.

“Our report shows that policies to narrow skills gaps are working, but that the skills of the future in digital and computing are emerging as an area of concern. We are making industry commitments today to address that trend and have put forward recommendations for the government to match – so that we can make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines.”

The report calls for the government to work with the industry to:

  • Use the newly funded Institutes of Technology to prioritise the application of digital skills in the life sciences sector
  • Stimulate the adoption of emerging skills to meet demand by extending pilot schemes
  • Ensure early career researchers are central to broader skills policy, to support the number of new candidates in the pipeline
  • Create a pipeline of UK and international scientific researchers through increasing the provision of life science apprenticeship training
  • Attract experienced expertise by supporting visa routes for global life sciences talent.