How to tackle the skills shortage facing UK science

  • Emma Finamore
  • Last updated 23 Jun 2022

One of the answers is the development of a new high-level Clinical Pharmacology Scientist apprenticeship.


The UK must plug an increasing number of science skills gaps to maintain its world-leading position for medicines and vaccines research and development, says the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI). 

The UK is falling behind Europe and the rest of the world in terms of numbers of students studying many STEM subjects vital for discovering the advanced treatments and technologies of the future.

The ABPI warns that these highly-skilled scientific roles – vital to the UK’s successful pharmaceutical and biotech sectors – could move to other parts of the world if the situation is not addressed as a matter of urgency.

Despite the number of UK undergraduates studying STEM subjects increasing by 16% over the last decade (compared to an overall increase across all subjects of 13%) undergraduate numbers for EU students increased by 52% and non-EU students (worldwide) increased by 63%.

The figures come from the ABPI’s latest biennial survey of member pharmaceutical companies, looking at the challenges of recruiting suitably qualified and experienced staff: Bridging the skills gap in the biopharmaceutical industry.

The new evidence comes as the UK seeks to protect its position as a hub for global life-sciences as it leaves the European Union.  Along with the skills shortages, respondents identified Brexit as the most critical threat to job growth in the UK, in an industry, which invests significantly more in R&D than any other sector.

To help future proof the UK’s medicines R&D workforce, the ABPI is actively involved in the development of standards for a new high-level Clinical Pharmacology Scientist apprenticeship.

The report shows areas of significant concern, as identified by over 30 companies:

Genomics – sequencing and analysis of the human genome to understand how to develop new treatments for diseases

Immunology - the study of disease caused by disorders of the immune system, vital for the protection of infectious diseases.

Bioinformatics and Chemoinformatics – the science of using software tools to understand biological and chemical data to help develop new treatments

Clinical pharmacology - experts working at the cutting edge of real-world data and clinical trials to help maximize the positive effects of a medicine and minimize the unwanted side effects.

To help future proof the UK’s medicines R&D workforce, the ABPI is:

Working with allied organisations, including the British Science Association, to inspire more young people to pursue STEM careers, such as through the content we are delivering to support a new government-funded competition for young people.

Recommending to the Home Office that Clinical Pharmacology be added to the shortage occupation list, and that the Home Office review the shortage occupation list more frequently to be able to react quickly to the fast-moving science landscape.

Actively involved in the development of standards for a new high-level Clinical Pharmacology Scientist apprenticeship.

The pharmaceutical industry remains by far the industry with the highest investment in R&D in the UK at £4.1 billion per year (in 2016), but this fell 22 per cent in real terms between 2011 and 2016 – the most recent figures available.  The UK pharmaceutical industry currently employs 63,000 – down from 70,000 in 2015 - with 24,000 devoted to R&D.  Apprenticeships in the pharmaceutical industry are up 169 per cent since 2013. 

Sheuli Porkess, Deputy Chief Scientific Officer at the ABPI, said: “The government has set out ambitious targets for increased R&D spend in the UK - including by business – but for this to succeed we must have access to highly skilled people. 



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