Developing talent and partnership to create new medicines

pharmafile | February 24, 2017 | News story | Medical Communications ABPI 

The ABPI discusses how investing in R&D education and collaboration can reap long-term benefits to the pharmaceutical industry and the UK economy.

The UK pharmaceutical industry is world class in fostering successful partnerships with academia, ranking fourth in the world for research and development (R&D) collaborations.

Positioned at the leading edge of drug development and spending billions on R&D each year alone, the pharmaceutical industry is a major, research-intensive contributor to the UK economy, despite three consecutive years of decreases in R&D expenditure.

Why collaborate?

The case for teaming up in the UK is very strong. The Dowling Review of Business-University Research Collaborations, published in July 2015, provides a comprehensive overview of the current state of UK R&D collaborations. Fourteen out of the top 40 companies cited, based on the number of collaborative projects with academia, are in the pharmaceutical industry; seven of these are within the top 15.

These projects allow ideas and expertise to flow between industry and academia, resulting in a whole array of benefits for those involved. For companies, benefits can include more efficient and successful drug development, greater networking, access to talented graduates, reduced risk associated with investing in innovative research, and the potential for increased gross value added (GVA) per pound spent. For academics, these include access to specialist equipment and data, a greater understanding of real-world problems and industrial challenges, increased job prospects, and new funding avenues.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014 provided a way to measure the quality of research at UK universities and the impact created by industry-academic collaborations, illustrating what can be achieved when collaboration is successful. Movement between academia and industry is key to enabling interactions, both short- and long-term, that have the potential to grow into successful collaborations. The ABPI-industry-academic links survey captures some of these interactions and how they are changing as the landscape becomes more truly open and innovative.

Partnerships are providing a multitude of opportunities across different career stages

The UK pharmaceutical industry continues to provide industrial training and experience to undergraduates, graduates, postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers by offering placements, funding and support for a variety of research projects either at their own R&D sites or within an academic environment.

Industry-academic R&D trends

From 2013 onwards companies were asked about all of their undergraduate industrial placements (IPs), including those outside R&D. In 2015, 603 placements in sixteen different business areas were recorded; just under half in R&D. Over 97% of these were one year in duration, the rest were two–three months.

Undergraduate IPs

What about graduates?

Some companies are hosting short graduate placements in addition to their graduate schemes/jobs and collaborative PhD programmes. Shorter placements are often part of an Erasmus programme or MSc degree and are typically less than one year in duration. Longer programmes, lasting around 2–3 years, are also offered by companies. Examples include AstraZeneca’s Innovative Medicines and Early Development (IMED) graduate programme and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)’s Future Leaders programmes.

For those who wish to pursue a doctoral degree there are various collaborative PhD opportunities with industry. The PhDs recorded in 2015 account for around 40% of all R&D industry-academic links (not including graduate schemes/placements) despite a decrease in the total number of PhDs, from 646 in 2013 to 552 in 2015.


PhD studentships

Given the decline in the number of PhDs recorded here, it is important to recognise how collaborative PhDs are funded. Companies were asked to provide information on funding partners (funders in addition to the companies themselves). Just over a third are co-funded with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and around a quarter with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Whilst the number of PhDs co-funded with the BBSRC and EPSRC has both stayed relatively stable in comparison with previous surveys, the pharmaceutical companies surveyed reported fewer co-funded PhDs with the Medical Research Council (MRC), from 63 in 2011 to 33 in 2013 and to 19 in 2015. However, CASE studentship award numbers by the MRC have remained relatively constant over the last six years and the MRC continues to enable partnerships for PhD students funded by other mechanisms. The reported reduction may therefore be due to an increase in successful CASE applications by SMEs and companies that are not ABPI members (and thus will not have been counted in the survey).

PhD studentship funding partners

Furthermore, there has been a change in the way Research Councils allocate funding for PhD students. Whereas in the past a company could apply for a number of CASE awards and use these to fund PhD students with specific researchers in universities, a higher proportion of funding is now allocated by EPSRC and BBSRC to university departments. PhD students at these doctoral training centres may be less attractive to the company as the company has less influence over the research being carried out and the students are often less closely associated with the supporting company. This may explain part of the decline in the total number of PhDs recorded in 2015.

Despite this, the spread of studentships across UK academic institutions remains similar, as 17 of the top 20 institutions are also among those listed in the previous survey. The University of Strathclyde is top for collaborative PhD studentships in 2015 with 75, partly due to the GSK-Strathclyde collaborative PhD programme (established in 2011) which is accountable for many of these.

Other training routes

Aside from the ‘traditional’ R&D career path from undergraduate student to postdoctoral researcher and beyond, there is a growing emphasis on apprenticeships in the UK which is in part due to the Science Industry Partnership (SIP).

2015 has seen a 106% increase in the number of apprentices being trained within the UK pharmaceutical industry, from 144 to 297; 10% (30/297) of which are in R&D – up from 8% (11/144) in 2013. The proportion of manufacturing apprenticeships has also gone up from 20% (29/144) to 31% (92/297).


The 2015 survey has seen a huge rise in the number of companies providing training for apprentices as more than twice as many companies reported having apprentices than in 2013. The majority of these, about 70%, are advanced-level apprenticeships (level 3) which are equivalent to two A levels but over a quarter are high-level (level 4+) with some working towards foundation and honours degrees. Although the spread of apprenticeships across the different levels has barely changed since 2013, companies are recognising how high-level apprenticeships can contribute to their businesses. It is expected that this figure will continue to increase in years to come.

Level of apprenticeship vs. business area

Whilst the level of apprenticeships remains virtually the same, there does appear to be a shift towards three-year-long apprenticeships, with 48% (142) of those recorded in 2015 expected to last for three years, a figure that is up from 7% (10) in 2013, where data was provided. It will be interesting to see how apprenticeships within the UK pharmaceutical industry develop in the future and whether there will be a rise in the number of high-level apprentices working towards degree-level qualifications.


The ABPI longitudinal industry-academic links survey continues to show how collaborations are changing over time. It is evident that the UK pharmaceutical industry values the benefit of collaborations through knowledge and people exchange, and is shifting towards a truly open, shared and innovative landscape to maintain the UK’s position at the leading edge of pharmaceutical R&D, from fundamental research to drug discovery and development.

Many of these collaborations and other interactions between industry and academia are part of the Innovative Medicines Initiative, or other EU-funded projects. It is hoped that, in the run-up to the UK withdrawing from the EU, UK-based companies and universities will continue to be able to engage with these programmes and that the next survey, at the end of 2017, will not reveal a significant decrease in these interactions.

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