Monday 16 August 2021 3:26 pm Avado Talk

Life sciences sector alert to evolving skills challenge

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‘We stand on the cusp of an era of cures, in which new technologies make previously terminal diseases treatable or curable’: so states the UK ‘Life Sciences Vision’, which outlines a 10-year strategy for the sector.

The vision, unveiled last month, states that life sciences will be one of the great drivers of growth in the twenty-first century’. Focused on better tackling some of healthcare’s biggest challenges, including cancer, dementia and obesity, its publication follows the government’s ‘Build Back Better: our plan for growth’ announcement, which came in March, focused on investment ambitions across innovation, infrastructure and skills. 

The new life sciences strategy includes plans to boost the UK’s competitiveness in five interrelated areas: skills, access to finance, regulation, manufacturing, and trade and investment. 

Improving the UK’s life sciences skills capacity is ‘essential to delivering better health outcomes, building the UK’s health resilience, as well as boosting productivity and driving forward areas of UK strength in life sciences including genomics, clinical trials and artificial intelligence,’ states the strategy.

The report goes on to cite Science Industry Partnership data that, by 2030, the sector has the potential to create 133,000 jobs in areas ranging from digital to clinical pharmacology, regulatory science and advanced therapies. But it also flags areas of shortage, including bioinformatics, data analytics, computational biology and visualisation technology.

‘We are a growing sector, so skills gaps are emerging’ 

The BioIndustry Association (BIA) has welcomed the Life Sciences Vision. It has recently described its sector as ‘on the cusp of a golden age’, driven by growing demand from overseas investors, with £1.56bn pouring into the UK during the most recent quarter – the highest quarterly total recorded since the association began tracking investment spending.

“As the UK biotech industry grows, and novel therapies progress through to clinical delivery, a significant number of new jobs and unique skills will be required,” Steve Bates, the association’s chief executive, tells City AM on the sector’s skills challenge. “Specialist skills are needed to design, develop, manufacture and deliver the innovative therapies that will underpin the success of the industry. We are a growing sector, so skills gaps are emerging, ranging from research and development scientists, data science and informatics, manufacturing specialists, regulatory professionals and clinical experts.”

Of course, like with any industry, a complex and interwoven web of factors are shaping the life sciences talent pool: from the education received by those entering (and already working in) the sector to significantly broader influences such as the strength of the overall economy and the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Bates points out that – like the capital inflows the BIA has highlighted – talent, too, is internationally mobile: “Free flow of highly-skilled talent globally is underpinned by the UK’s immigration system. To become a leading global hub for life sciences, a suitably rigorous process for the UK biotech sector to access international talent is needed, alongside continued investment in home-grown skills.”

‘Generational shift with regard to skills’

“Biotechnology across all sectors is facing a generational shift with regard to skills,” reflects Claire Skentelbery, director-general of pan-European industry association EuropaBio.

“A good example is manufacturing of advanced biologicals, whether it’s a Covid-19 vaccine, or transition to biological (rather than chemical) production of intermediates for food, fragrance and pharmaceuticals. It demands very specific skills, not only for the R&D phases but really on the competitive commercial side to allow large-scale production in response to global demand,” she tells City AM from Brussels.  

Like Bates, Skentelbery highlights the confluence of factors driving life sciences’ skills challenge, as well as the cross-border nature of many topics.

“There is a big push in Europe to ensure greater resilience of supply (in all things, not just medicines) and that means a scale-up of manufacture using advanced technologies such as biotech,” she says. “Add in the digital transition, which is right up there at the top of European Commission strategy, and you have companies across Europe scrambling to bring in this new generation of scientists and engineers. Movement of people is critical for this. No country has a full supply of talent in a frontier sector such as biotech, which is always evolving, and countries need to both develop and attract the right skills at sufficient scale to make their industries competitive globally.”

‘Capability chasm’ in data and agility

As geo-politics and other factors outside of the industry’s control evolve, so does technology, with its influence heightened by the pandemic.

“With life sciences being at the cutting-edge of technology, having a workforce that is literate in data and agility is nothing less than crucial for future success. This became even clearer through Covid-19 as companies were forced to move faster than they ever have before,” observes Kishan Moti, global client director at Avado.

“Life sciences have always focused on quite academic skills but, through the pandemic, it became apparent that they lacked broader business skills around data and agility. These aren’t traditionally taught at universities, and we found through research of our own that there is what we would call a capability chasm in these two areas,” he says.

Nonetheless, with the government’s overarching strategy document now published – and the investment flowing – the prognosis for the sector is positive.

Collaboration between public- and private-sector organisations is one of the themes of the strategy – something that the BIA’s Bates highlights. 

“By working together across organisations of all shapes, sizes and technologies, skills challenges can be overcome by influencing the actions set out in the Life Sciences Vision, connecting companies and organisations, lowering the barriers to skills development and collaborating on funding opportunities,” he says.