Supporting the future discovery of new medicines in the UK

21 May 2010

RSC Position Statement

The global pharmaceutical sector is in a period of significant transition. Mergers of large pharmaceutical companies in recent years have produced global giants. However, there is a feeling that the 'big' pharmaceutical model is broken as the search for new products has become ever more, possibly prohibitively, expensive and is no more reliable. In addition, governments across the world are striving to contain healthcare costs by exerting downward pressures on pricing, whilst opportunities for growth are opening up as new markets develop - especially in Asia where economic growth is raising standards of living and expectations of improved health care.

As a consequence of these global developments, big pharmaceutical companies are changing. The discovery of new medicines is being pursued in novel ways across the world. The pharmaceutical sector is making investments closer to new markets in Asia and is developing new models for the discovery of medicines. The industry is being reshaped to position itself for the future and, as a country with a long history of excellence in pharmaceuticals, this creates opportunities for impacting on the future shape and nature of the pharmaceutical sector in the UK.

The pharmaceuticals and biotechnology sectors play a vital role in the UK economy and wealth creation. In 2008, it contributed 4.3bn in R&D1 (making it the leading UK sector for R&D investment), employed around 67,000 people, and contributed around 8.2bn to GDP.2 Pharmaceuticals are consistently in the top three UK industrial sectors in terms of trade surplus,3 generating a surplus of 6bn in 2008.4 At least 10 of the current top selling drugs worldwide have UK trained chemists as named inventors, and the UK biotechnology sector leads Europe in the number of drug candidates at all stages of clinical development.

The changes affecting the sector have manifested themselves in the UK as well as other parts of the world. While the pharmaceuticals sector remains significant, the UK is facing ever-increasing competition for additional investment in the sector from both developed and emerging nations. The recent restructuring and streamlining of companies following mergers and acquisitions has resulted in the loss of several thousands of highly skilled UK jobs and a reduction in research & development investment from large pharmaceutical companies over the last few years.5 These changes pose both threats and opportunities.

Historically, the significant contribution to the UK economy has been based on pharmaceutical research & development. This was synergistic with UK academic excellence in organic synthesis and biology. In the future, given the changes in the sector, the skill set associated with drug discovery will need to be acquired within UK academic centres. Given the lag time between an original discovery and the future economic benefit, it is vital that the UK continues to maintain and develop the country's scientific capabilities to facilitate the development of a pipeline of new medicines.

Responding to the new opportunities, there have been increased partnerships between big pharmaceutical companies and small and medium sized enterprises [SMEs] and universities to carry out drug discovery. Consequently, the skill sets associated with drug discovery are now beginning to be acquired within UK academic centres.

The growth of small business in this sector in the UK has been significant, with contract research organisations currently employing more chemistry graduates than pharmaceutical companies. Drug discovery is also on the increase - in universities, (as exemplified by the Dundee Institute for Drug Discovery) and within charity based laboratories (such as Medical Research Council Technology, Cancer Research UK and Wellcome Trust laboratories). These growing businesses will take over from the existing pharmaceutical companies in providing the reservoir of knowledge and talent that will drive drug discovery in the future.

With the global environment for the pharmaceutical industry changing, the UK needs to adapt and respond to these changes and seize the new opportunities to ensure that it continues to play a role as a world class hub for the sector. It is imperative that the required skills in the workforce are maintained and developed, and that the necessary investment is encouraged. 

The following actions are critical to underpin the UK's continuing role as a world class hub for the generation of new medicines:


World class medicinal chemistry research in the UK has been primarily funded and carried out in large pharmaceutical companies. With the changes in the traditional 'in-house' Drug Discovery model to an outsourcing model, the funding to support medicinal chemistry needs to adapt.

  • Research Councils should provide strategic funding for academic research in drug discovery.
  • Increased investment should be available for SMEs operating in the pharmaceutical sector to encourage R&D, and active government support is required alongside fiscal incentives for existing pharmaceutical companies to continue to invest in the UK.  

Skills gap

Life Sciences and Pharmaceuticals have been identified as a key sector where there is a shortage of skills.6 There will continue to be a demand for strengths across all of the STEM disciplines at school, first degree, post-graduate level and beyond. Currently, the majority of post-graduate industrial training programmes in the pharmaceuticals sector are funded and provided by pharmaceutical companies. As the business model changes there will be a decline in the training available. Therefore, if drug discovery is to successfully move to SMEs and academia, the potential skills gap must be addressed.

  • A programme of support and investment to provide training and education in medicinal chemistry in the UK should be created.  


The new developing pharmaceutical models will only be successful if there is improved collaboration between academia, contract research organisations and industry, with improved knowledge and people transfer. In addition, increased links between pharmaceutical companies in pre-competitive areas need to be created to help share discoveries, improve success rates and reduce costs.

  • An open innovation framework between pharmaceutical companies in pre-competitive areas must be established.
  • Universities need to have realistic expectations of the value of the Intellectual Property held by academics. Unrealistic financial expectations are a barrier to collaboration.
  • Knowledge transfer must be increased and supported by strengthening the position of pharmaceuticals within the UK's Knowledge Transfer Networks.  


1ABPI, Research and Development in UK Business (ONS), Annual Census of Production (ONS)
2ONS Annual Business Enquiry
3ABPI Facts & Statistics from the pharmaceutical industry (link below)
4HMI Customs and Excise
5Primarily due to UK site closures by Merck, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca
6Skills for Jobs: Today and Tomorrow, (BIS)

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Related Links

Link icon ABPI Facts and Statistics
Facts and statistics on the pharmaceutical industry and UK economy from the ABPI

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