Pfizer – a new missing link in the graduate skills pipeline?
Release Date 10 February 2011
Pfizer's forthcoming withdrawal from its European R&D HQ at Sandwich, Kent, underlines the precariousness of the biopharmaceutical industry in the south east and in the UK.
On the face of it, Pfizer's decision is based on strategic corporate priorities to streamline operations and to focus on particular disease areas and drug targets and to leave others behind. However, observers link the US company's departure from Sandwich, like other recent high-profile closures and downsizings in the sector, with a lack of confidence in the UK science research base, undersupply of skilled labour, and insufficient effort and speed on the part of the Government to provide a conducive fiscal environment.
In addition to the more obvious economic impact on the region, the industry's departure threatens the viability of the higher education sector's extensive investment in life sciences research and teaching. It also undermines recent moves to work with the industry - both big pharma and the expanding SME sector which forms an essential part of its supply chain - to help address its self-reported (and possibly interconnected) problems with both the skills and drugs pipelines (1).The SE Universities Biopharma Skills Consortium, led by the University of Reading (2), was established in 2010 to develop approaches for working collaboratively, across the higher education sector and with industry, to meet the needs of the biopharma industry. A recent report from the Consortium outlines the challenges that both academia and industry face in addressing deficits in high-level skills and specialist knowledge (3).
Pfizer has been a key partner in working with Consortium university members to develop high-level skills training; it is essential for the future of biopharma in the UK that this type of work continues. However, such partnerships that aim to address the problems cannot be sustained if the continued presence of the industry, and of major players such as Pfizer, remains so uncertain, especially in the absence of public funding to support such large-scale developmental work in the HE sector. The lack of Government funding or sustained industry investment and cooperation leaves the HE sector very constrained as to how it might start addressing the skills needs of industry.
The SE Universities Consortium and other initiatives have demonstrated that HE is ready and willing to play its part in supporting the UK-based biopharma industry; however, it cannot fully do so without the cooperation of the Government and the industry itself. The bottom line is that a global industry such as pharma has no intrinsic need to invest in creating an environment conducive to its operations in the UK; the financial impetus will need to come from Government, including through enabling the universities to fulfil their potential to support the retention and development of the industry in the UK.
1. Sustaining the skills pipeline in the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries, APBI, 2005; Skills needs for biomedical research, ABPI, 2008.
2. Other members in February 2011 include: The Open University, The Royal Veterinary College, The University of Brighton, The University of Kent, the University of Portsmouth and the University of Surrey.