Remedy sought for sickly R&D

February 21, 1997

Pharmaceutical firms are alarmed at the state of the science base. Kam Patal reports on how funds are falling.

The pharmaceutical industry is a good barometer of changes in the science base. It invests heavily in research and development, relies on academia and is widely expected to grow in the 21st century thanks to advances in biotechnology and development of biomedically related products.

Gill Samuels of American pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer is clear why the firm has invested Pounds 315 million over the past five years in a research and manufacturing operation in Kent. "We are here because of the strength of the UK science and the quality of graduates."

Pfizer expects to spend Pounds 1.3 billion on R&D globally next year and in 1995 the firm spent Pounds 170 million on R&D in the UK alone. Three of its best-selling drugs were invented in the UK, with the top one earning the firm well over Pounds 1 billion last year.

But Dr Samuels, director of science policy at Pfizer's Central Research Laboratory in Sandwich, warns that further investment by the firm will depend on the UK maintaining a strong science base and universities continuing to produce top-quality researchers. The omens are not good.

The firm's Central Research Laboratory employs 1,500 scientists and technologists and support staff, two-thirds of whom have a first degree or PhD in such subjects as chemistry, biology, molecular science and mathematics. But Dr Samuels says there is now a shortage of quality graduates in chemistry and specialised disciplines associated with genomic analysis and physical sciences. It has become difficult to recruit experienced pharmaceutical statisticians with the correct experience and knowledge. "There is an inappropriate focus on numbers rather than on the quality of graduates produced by UK universities."

Dr Samuels is concerned about underfunding for university infrastructure, especially research equipment and cites last year's devastating study of research equipment by the University of Manchester that showed many universities are limping along with clapped-out kit. Many students, she says, are not being exposed to modern equipment on courses. "While major pharmaceutical firms have the resources to train such graduates, the situation is much more acute for small and medium firms that are unable to fund such 'remedial training'. Under-investment in the academic science base is eroding the international competitiveness of the UK and underfunding will now have a negative impact on the future success of the pharmaceutical industry."

Michael Elves, director of scientific and educational affairs at Glaxo Wellcome, which spent Pounds 1.13 billion on R&D in 1996, says UK academics are becoming increasingly disadvantaged by a lack of good research equipment and if this continues, firms will look elsewhere for collaborations.


Britain is home to 14 per cent of the world's small and medium-sized bioscience firms - 60 per cent of the European industry, according to Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry evidence to a House of Lords inquiry into scientific and technical exploitation and innovation. Over 90 per cent of Europe's listed bioscience firms are in the UK. By 2000, sales of products dependent on biotechnology could be worth over Pounds 9 billion.

But the association told the Lords that it had repeatedly "expressed strong concern over threats to the continued well-being of the industry in the UK as a direct result of the declining health of the science base and the increased activity of other countries in this area."

It pointed out that the sector carries out almost a quarter of industrial research in the UK and spent nearly Pounds 2 billion on R&D in 1995. "The main driver for this investment has been the quality of UK academia in its ability to produce good graduates for recruitment and also the positive attitude of academic institutions towards collaborative research."

It warned of a potential decline in the UK science base if Govern-ment spending on researchwas not increased.

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