The demand for skills development in the molecular biosciences

Derry MercerBy Dr Derry K Mercer, Principal Scientist at Novabiotics Ltd & member of the Biochemical Society Policy Advisory Panel

The UK Government recently published a Green Paper ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’ in which the urgent need for developing skills in further/higher education and the workforce was outlined. The document noted that while the UK higher education system was strong, our achievements in basic and technical skills was relatively poor and has led to the lower levels of productivity compared with other advanced economies.

The skills issues were outlined as follows:

  • lack of basic skills;
  • shortage of high-skilled technicians below graduate level;
  • skills shortages in STEM sectors;
  • the need for informed career choices;
  • lack of lifelong learning opportunities.

For anyone working in the molecular biosciences, whether in academia or industry, most of these concerns can hardly have come as a surprise and represents a huge problem for a growing sector that currently generates turnover of over £56 billion per annum. Indeed, the skills and productivity gaps were pointed out in an earlier UK government documentFixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation’ in 2015.

A number of non-governmental reports have been published recently highlighting skills issues. I will use the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) 2015 report ‘Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry’ as I think this exemplifies most of the skills gaps in the molecular biosciences. In this report the ABPI highlight the need for skills in areas such as mathematics and computing, including bioinformatics, statistics, systems biology and health informatics, as well as ongoing challenges in areas such as translational medicine and clinical pharmacology. This represents no small challenge for a research-intensive industry that spends over £4 billion on research and development (2013 data), supplies ~90 per cent of all medicines used by the NHS and is involved in R&D efforts for over two-thirds of the current medicines pipeline. Recent advances in drug R&D mean that an increasing proportion of new medicines are biologics and are more likely to have been created following mining of data. The advent of stratified medicine (intended for a small subgroup of patients) highlights an increased emphasis on diagnostics. The importance of diagnostics has been highlighted recently in my own area of research with the advent of the £10 million Longitude Prize to reward a diagnostic test that helps solve the problem of global antibiotic resistance. All of these changes have greatly influenced the changing nature of skills required by the biopharmaceutical industry alone. Many of the skills shortages highlighted as being problematic for the biopharmaceutical industry also apply to the molecular biosciences generally, including academia and industry.

So what can we do about these problems? As a starting point, there is need for collaborative action between the Government, employers and the further and higher education sectors to facilitate delivery of the required skills. Without dwelling on all of the issues laid out above, I will focus on aspects of particular concern to the molecular biosciences.

The lack of highly skilled technicians can only be addressed by creating a new system for technical education, as exists in countries such as Germany and Singapore, that should encompass the recommendations of Post-16 skills plan published in 2016. What is required is a clear and simple framework of qualifications, led by employers, that lead into skilled employment. For example, the Science Industry Partnership provides employers with leadership on developing new solutions to their skills requirements. The increased emphasis on apprenticeships as a means of training younger people in technical/vocational skills, exemplified by the new Apprenticeships Levy, can only be a good thing. I believe that there needs to be more parity of esteem across academic and technical/vocational training pathways and recognition that apprenticeships are as valuable as degrees, neither of which limit future career options.

Many of the current ideas seem to be largely focused on younger people (16 – 19 years), but what is also needed are opportunities for lifelong learning for older workers, whether to gain higher qualifications, to retrain or for continuing professional development. As such, schemes like the Royal Society of Biology’s Registered Science Technician and Registered Scientist, licensed by the Science Council, may be good examples that can be adapted for national use. For graduates, ‘chartered’ or ‘qualified person’ status should be encouraged as part of lifelong learning.

Skills shortages in the STEM subjects remain problematic, especially mathematics, although there is evidence of increasing uptake of degree places for STEM subjects in higher education and increasing numbers of students studying advanced mathematics post-16. Good careers information and advice will be essential in encouraging individuals to study STEM subjects at school and in further/higher education. Students take such decisions early, so interventions at a young age are important. Initiatives such as the STEM Insight programme, supported by the Biochemical Society, offers staff in schools and further education colleges an opportunity to experience STEM-related work in industrial or university settings and learn more about diverse career paths and opportunities for students.  In Ireland the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is open to secondary school students and receives nationwide coverage and enthuses secondary school children to take up STEM careers. A UK equivalent could be a great opportunity. The Glasgow Science Centre and Skills Development Scotland are offering an interesting opportunity for visitors to explore their possible future careers in My World of Work Live! which contains information, virtual reality experiences and workshops on available STEM careers.

Within the molecular biosciences, industry and education often work to different timelines and measures of success. Employers need to commit to offering opportunities for students to access work experience so that they have a better understanding of what different areas of industry may entail.

This is the second blog post on the Industrial Strategy Green Paper. The first one titled “Building on Industrial Strategy: investing in science, research and innovation” by Dr Kelly Davidge is also available on our blog.

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