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The UK’s Got Talent (?)

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

Words by Louise Rogers

“Science needs the flow of people and ideas across borders”, read a letter to Teresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker in late 2018, signed by 29 Nobel Laureates and six Fields Medallists. The UK pharmaceutical and life-sciences industries directly employ over 220,000 people, 7% of whom are non-British EU citizens; however, with the current dual immigration system set to merge into a one skills-based lane as a result of a potential Brexit, the fate of and impact on the UK’s workforce sits in political limbo. Whatever the deal, how can the life-sciences sector ensure that the UK remains an epicentre for attracting talent post-Brexit?

In November 2018, at the HBA’s Impact of Brexit on the Life Sciences Industry event, Angela Bowden, Associate Partner, EY Supply Chain & Operations, voices her optimism regarding the UK’s long-term investment environment: “Investors are keen to invest in people – the people who encourage innovation. UK universities are often the feeder stock for researchers, so we need to continue encouraging talent to study in the UK as well as developing our own. We have been that talent to date and it’s vital we continue.”

This is a disruptive time and the good thing about that is it forces change

The UK government has promised to continue to embrace students from overseas with their no-cap on numbers, ‘light-touch’ visa system; nonetheless, university spokespeople have rung alarm bells over Brexit, warning that the decision could impede scientific research and jeopardise the £21 billion that the higher educational system currently contributes to the UK economy. As noted by Bowden, one of the primary factors for attracting talent is the UK’s academic excellence; if the UK can continue to display scientific excellence and innovation then talent and financial investment will naturally follow.

Talks turns from institution to industry. “As a global organisation, we value people moving around the globe, because it’s not only about sharing the knowledge of business, but the knowledge of culture as well”, voices Colin Frost, Head of UK Trade, Pfizer, in explaining the importance of multinational talent within a corporation. Brexit, of course, poses as a risk to the influx of multinational culture, and Bowden gives her insight to how UK companies can retain these employees: “What needs to happen now, is pharma need to be looking across their companies and understand, department by department, who is impacted. They need a clear policy in place that will ensure the safety of these individuals.”

As well as attention on staffing within the industry, there has been much scrutiny on the retention of the NHS workforce, with a substantial number of nurses from the EU already returning to mainland Europe, following the referendum. If the gap in the NHS workforce continues to grow, there will be an increasing impact on patient care and on the speed at which innovative medicines and technologies can be adopted. “We talk a lot about institution and R&D efforts, but the drugs have to get to the patient somehow. I am not sure I am hearing enough from industry about working with the NHS, and it is something we need to talk about more”, says Bowden.

The NHS and industry have a long history of conflict and the triggering of Article 50 has only exacerbated disputes between the two; essentially, pharma’s issues are with pricing standards and the NHS’s with their lack of resources, and these two paradigms often clash, making progress difficult.

Leslie Galloway, Chairman, EMIG and Expert Adviser, NICE, sees opportunity in this challenge: “This is a disruptive time and the good thing about that is it forces change. If we take cell or gene therapy for example – both are very expensive, so how are the NHS going to be able to afford this unless they push the prices down to unreasonable levels? It takes a pharma company 10–12 years from drug discovery until market authorisation. If the NHS and industry were prepared to work together to try to shorten that period, then this could massively reduce time and therefore costs. Someone needs to initiate this conversation. We have to remember we are in an ecosystem and Brexit is only one of the big issues for the pharma industry.”

The panel ends by reflecting on what has been learnt from the Brexit uncertainty. “We have seen a lot of collaborations”, comments Galloway. “Collaborations with suppliers and other service providers. We now have a dialogue with these people, which is much more than the transactional relationship we had before. I think it’s also proven the willingness to change, and I’m not just talking about industry here but the willingness of government bodies, the civil service, and the MHRA.”

We have to remember we are in an ecosystem and Brexit is only one of the big issues for the pharma industry

In the industrial strategy white paper that was published in 2017, it stated: “the decision to leave the European Union was not a decision to retreat from the rest of the world.” We can only hope that the rest of the world does not retreat from the UK and that industry do everything in their power to continue attracting and retaining talent, ensuring the UK remains a hub for scientific innovation.

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