UK life sciences in search for AI, digital and data talent

The UK biopharmaceutical industry is increasingly seeking talent with AI and data skills in order to remain competitive as digital technology drives innovations, according to a new Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) report.

As the UK’s life sciences industry continues to push at the cutting edge of innovation and discovery, the skills they need evolve with the scientific and technical challenges they face. Andrew Croydon, ABPI Education & Examination Policy and Partnerships Director

The pharmaceutical industry is increasingly adopting new digital tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics, to support innovative drug discovery and development, but many companies are struggling to find and attract workers with the necessary skills.

The ABPI report, ‘Evolution of an innovation-based biopharmaceutical industry,’ developed in collaboration with Public First, is the latest analysis of the trends and gaps in skills within the UK pharmaceutical industry based on survey data from over 30 different employers.

Updated every two years, the latest report shows strong progress has been made in addressing previously identified skills gaps, particularly in areas such as formulation science and pharmacokinetic/ pharmacodynamics modelling. In other areas, skills gaps have been closing, for example, chemometrics no longer features as a high-priority gap, suggesting that efforts to raise awareness of the need for these skills have been effective.

Despite this progress, a number of high-priority skills remain in short supply, particularly in areas such as biomedical imaging, bioinformatics and computational chemistry/science, demonstrating longstanding challenges in the training pipeline for these specialities.

Critical skills such as the application of scientific, mathematical, and digital knowledge have also re-emerged as a problem area in new recruits, with 57% of respondents in the 2023 survey identifying these as challenges, compared to 38% in 2021’s survey results.

The report also highlights how the industry is making increasing use of apprenticeships and other forms of training to fill skills gaps. 44% of respondents to the survey said they are taking more apprentices compared to four years ago.

Starts for relevant apprenticeship standards, such as Data Analyst (up 69%), Science Manufacturing Process Operative (up 325%) and the degree apprenticeship in Science Industry Process and Plant Engineer (up 100%) have all increased significantly since 2019.

There has also been a large increase in the number of apprenticeships lasting for less than two years, which have gone up from 27 in 2019 to 225 in 2022. These increases highlight how greater flexibility in the apprenticeships system can enable employers to increase training and supports calls made in the report for increased flexibility in the operation of the apprenticeship levy.

Andrew Croydon, Education & Examination Policy and Partnerships Director, ABPI, said: “As the UK’s life sciences industry continues to push at the cutting edge of innovation and discovery, the skills they need evolve with the scientific and technical challenges they face. Our latest report reinforces the need for accessible pathways into the sector to ensure we have the highly skilled people required to keep one of the UK’s most innovative sectors globally competitive.”

The industry serves as a source of high-quality jobs right across the UK. Two-thirds (67%) of UK life science sites are based outside the London-Oxbridge triangle, with prominent clusters for biopharmaceutical research in the North West between Liverpool and Manchester, alongside significant specialist clusters in the Devolved Nations.

Findings also suggest newly emerging skills gaps in robotics, data pathology and data science reflecting skills linked to technologies like AI, which are growing in popularity.

The report's authors make three key policy recommendations for the Government to consider:

Short term

Simplify access to, and increase the flexibility of, government skills provision, in particular the apprenticeship levy, to ensure that businesses of all sizes have the resources to be able to train and retain key staff. This should include further devolution of skills and apprenticeship spending, in order to enable local leaders to put in place the provision that best suits the needs of their area.

Medium term

Develop a clearer and more coherent careers guidance system across the UK, in England by implementing the strategic framework outlined by Sir John Holman in his review of careers guidance. An important aspect of this should be to develop a better picture of graduate career readiness and ensure that higher education institutions support STEM graduates to develop both the technical and transferable skills required to succeed in the industry.

Long term

Support development of a more highly skilled workforce that is equipped for the increasing number of jobs that rely on data, digital and analytical skills, by delivering on an ambition that all young people can access outstanding and inspiring STEM education from primary stage, supported by specialist teachers and adequately funded schools and colleges.

  • Industry Academic Link Survey
  • Skills
  • Apprentices
  • Education

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023

ABPI report: How Skill Requirements are Changing:

About Public First

Public First is a policy, research, opinion and strategy consultancy. It works with global companies, governments, start ups, institutions and foundations around the world to tackle major public policy and strategic challenges.

The ABPI exists to make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines. We represent companies of all sizes who invest in discovering the medicines of the future. 

Our members supply cutting edge treatments that improve and save the lives of millions of people. We work in partnership with Government and the NHS so patients can get new treatments faster and the NHS can plan how much it spends on medicines. Every day, we partner with organisations in the life sciences community and beyond to transform lives across the UK.