What new data tells us about Academia-Industry links

The ABPI have recently published their Academia-Industry links report based on the interactions of 15 pharmaceutical companies with the academic science base. Malcolm Skingle CBE PhD, Chair of the ABPI's ACES Strategic Leadership Group, looks at the data.

In industry, the smart companies will continue to innovate and to upskill their staff who are their greatest asset. There has never been a greater need for partnership and a need to innovate. Malcolm Skingle CBE

The ABPI has published its biennial study, first undertaken in 2003, of information on the various types of Academia-Industry interaction including industrial placements, post-graduate studentships, apprenticeships and post-doctoral researcher awards.

The data show that, perhaps not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical sector continues to engage with the UK academic base at multiple levels. The total number of Academia-Industry links is similar to the last survey undertaken in 2017, although the profile has altered in that the sector is now training more apprenticeships than previously; whilst the number of sandwich students and post-graduate students remain similar to the last survey.


The UK government’s drive to increase the number of apprenticeships through fiscal incentives and the introduction of the apprenticeship levy in 2017 has resulted in a 4 fold increase in the number of apprenticeships in the pharmaceutical sector since 2013. In practice there has been a very low take up of the apprenticeship levy (6%) by pharmaceutical companies who historically have not engaged apprentices as much as some of the more traditional engineering sectors.

There has also been a change in the profile of the typical apprenticeship training, with the pharmaceutical sector supporting more higher level apprenticeships (≥L5). The number of apprenticeship roles has also diversified into new areas within the industry e.g. HR, finance, regulatory, cell & gene therapy.

Many of the earlier trained apprentices in the sector have now been awarded Graduate Apprenticeships and some have gone onto to Masters level training. 

Companies are also finding that most apprentices are keen to be on-boarded into a full-time position at the end of their apprenticeship whereas a few prefer to acquire additional skills and training in full-time education. This cross fertilisation of vocational and full-time academic training is healthy and helps to share best practice across the Academia-Industry divide. 

Undergraduate Placements

A total of 599 undergraduate placements were shared across the 15 reporting Pharma companies and they came from a diverse range of universities (n=59).  Bath and Leeds universities continue to have the highest number of industrial undergraduate placements in pharma with 75 and 66 students respectively.

For many years both these universities have had an excellent track record of providing high quality students.

In the current survey we have seen undergraduate placements diversify into new parts of the business such as regulatory, marketing and the supply chain.  However, about half of the placement year students continue to work in the traditional R&D disciplines of chemistry and biological sciences.

Post-graduate studentships

The pharmaceutical sector continues to value CASE awards and collectively currently co-fund more than 500 postgraduate studentships from 45 UK universities. The three year PhD studentships are becoming increasingly rare and typically CASE awards are for 4 or 4.5 years. 

An important part of the CASE scheme is the training that the student receives during their mandatory industrial placement and the amount of time that the student spends in industry is variable depending on the individual’s project and the resources available in both academic and the industrial setting.

However, many students are spending longer periods of their training in industrial labs where they can access tools, and sometimes technologies or other scientific expertise, not available in the university.

Post-doctoral research

Post-doctoral research agreements were executed in 37 UK universities and the total number of contracts apparently decreased from 447 in 2017 down to 279 in 2019.  This decrease may be misleading however, as anecdotally, companies are collaborating with larger multi-disciplinary research groups.

For example, the Signal Transduction consortium at Dundee University is currently supported by 3companies who gain access to 138 Principal Investigators, 138 post-doctoral researchers and 35 technicians but this only counts as 3 contracts in the collated figures.

Therefore, if anything, the numbers in this survey are an under-representation of the vibrant interactions between pharma and the academic sector.

Not only are some of the academic collaborations larger, particularly where a multi-disciplinary approach is required to address a scientific challenge, but they are also being funded for longer. Compared to the 2017 survey there were fewer 1-3 year agreements in 2019 (57% to 40%) but more 4-5 year agreements (6% to 19%).

Over half of the research collaborations executed by UK based pharma companies were with UK universities (59%) and around a fifth were with universities in the US.

Another positive trend over the last couple of years has been the increasing trend for sabbaticals of academics into industry or industrial scientists into academia. 

Companies have recognised the value of formally allowing their scientists to take up Visiting Chairs or Entrepreneur or Scientist in Residence positions to gain better traction with the academic base.

The industrial scientist may use these appointments to give advice on curricula development; give careers advice; advise on research strategy; impart technical capability back into the academic environment; deliver lectures or indeed undertake experiments that they could not undertake in the industrial laboratory setting.

These positions have helped to cement stronger links across the interface and this has been recognised by UKRI who now provide seed funding to support this type of activity.

The Future

This study was undertaken before COVID-19 hit the UK. The new ways of working have now fully embedded after a couple of months of home working following the COVID lockdown. 

Company scientists have advised collaborating academic researchers to take advantage of home working and to write up their experiments and publications; to undertake data analysis, literature searches and to plan experiments for when they return to the laboratory. At the very least, companies are granting no cost extensions to existing contracts and allowing the virement of funds from consumables to salary costs when it makes sense from a project perspective.

It is currently too early to say what the long term impact of COVID will be on UK research; however companies are now looking at collaboration milestones and timelines on a case by case basis and working with academics to plot the best course of action.

In a recent survey undertaken by the UIDP (University-Industry Demonstration Partnership), 86% of the companies polled said that talent development remained a priority for their organisation post-COVID; accordingly, companies are retaining their internship programmes this summer but almost two-thirds of these programmes will be virtual.

Universities have been working hard to get their courses on-line since the lockdown. In my opinion, it is unlikely that academia and businesses will ever go back fully to the pre-COVID ways of working. For universities there will inevitably be a drop in overseas students, at least in the short term, and there will be an increase in on-line learning and tutorials/meetings via teleconferencing.

In industry, the smart companies will continue to innovate and to upskill their staff who are their greatest asset. There has never been a greater need for partnership and a need to innovate. The UK science base is strong, boasting 3 in the top 10; and 28 universities in the top 200 in the world rankings and this acts as a magnet for technology driven companies in Pharma sector.

The Pharma industry has long recognised that the cross fertilisation of ideas between industry and academia is the key to real innovation as shown by the industry track record going back to the first ABPI’s survey in 2003, and it is heartening to see that overall 2019 shows that these interactions continue to be important across a wide number of schemes and support within the ecosystem at multiple skills levels.

However, we cannot be complacent as other countries are investing heavily in their respective science bases and their outputs are getting stronger. We must continue to work together if we are to be successful as a global technology hub and be an attractor of major inward investment.


Thank you to Yingqi Hou, an intern, who collated and analysed the data from the respective pharmaceutical companies.


  • Industry Academic Link Survey

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023

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