How strong is the digital talent in the global pharma sector? 

DDW’s Megan Thomas looks at three regions and their approach to digitalisation.

1. United Kingdom 

A report published by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has identified the skills and training conditions needed for the future success of UK life sciences. George Freeman, Minister for Science, Research, and Innovation at the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has called the report a “blueprint for how government and industry can work together to grow the Life Sciences talent base.” 

The analysis, ‘Bridging the Skills Gap in the Biopharmaceutical Industry,’ was conducted by Public First and informed by interviews and surveys with pharmaceutical companies – who employ 63,000 highly skilled people across the UK. It shows that general skills gaps have narrowed, with rapid improvements in areas such as biological and chemical science. Gaps in core skills – scientific knowledge, communication and problem-solving – have also improved.  

However, some areas of concern remain. The ‘top priority’ areas to fill gaps identified by pharmaceutical companies included informatics, computational, mathematical, and statistical skills with shortages reported in five of the seven top priorities. The findings show the sector needs more experienced staff with strong digital skills which are required for sophisticated research and development, as well as advanced medicines manufacturing, with companies highlighting the need to urgently address the gaps in this area. 

Across most subject areas, such as biological, chemical, clinical, and computational disciplines, there are also concerns about the quantity of candidates in the pipeline (rather than the quality) and companies’ ability to recruit experienced staff.  

The report puts forward four explicit commitments by the sector to help improve the picture for skills, with the industry promising to:  

  • Support universities and raise awareness of the sector as an attractive employer to boost digital skills  
  • Launch an updated, dedicated platform of free, high quality, up-to-date STEM resources supporting all key stages for UK curricula to support long-term attainment and drive achievement. 
  • Conduct further research into recruitment and retention of experienced staff and why this is proving a challenge for the sector. 
  • Continue to address industry identified areas for action for securing a sustainable skills pipeline, as part of the Futures Group formed as part of Sector Deal 2. 

Andrew Croydon, Skills & Education Policy Director at the Association, said: “Our report shows that policies to narrow skills gaps are working, but that the skills of the future in digital and computing are emerging as an area of concern. We’re making industry commitments today to address that trend and have put forward recommendations for the government to match – so that we can make the UK the best place in the world to research, develop and use new medicines.” 

The association has called on the government to work with the sector to:  

  • Use the newly funded Institutes of Technology to prioritise the application of digital skills in the life sciences sector.  
  • Stimulate the adoption of emerging skills to meet demand by extending pilot schemes, such as those focused on the Skills Value Chain approach and the acquisition of wider research skills.  
  • Ensure early career researchers are central to broader skills policy, to support the number of new candidates in the pipeline.  
  • Create a pipeline of UK and international scientific researchers through increasing the provision of life science apprenticeship training across levels 2-7, through better industry coordinated engagement with life sciences employers.  
  • Attract experienced expertise by supporting visa routes for global life sciences talent, including reviewing the attractiveness of funding for globally mobile researchers. 

2. Southeast Asia 

According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute1, 78 million workers across China, India, and Japan will have to keep pace with automation technologies and other forms of innovation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Oliver Tonby, Chairman of McKinsey Asia, with Li-Kai Chen, Managing Partner of the Malaysia office, and Anu Madgavkar, a partner with the McKinsey Global Institute, discussed how business leaders, policymakers, and employees in Southeast Asia can prepare for this digital transition in a virtual roundtable. The following key themes were covered during the discussion1: 

  • Impact of Covid-19: Remote work is only the start 
  • Supporting and reskilling workers for new opportunities 
  • Embarking on the transition: How should governments, companies, and employees think about this? 

McKinsey Global concluded: “Ultimately, while the journey of talent transition is not without its challenges, the roundtable participants agree that it’s especially important that senior executives, leaders, and policymakers do not lose sight of the prize: greater agility, productivity, and empowerment of the workforce.” 

3. Europe 

“The number of times those of us working in the Brussels bubble have heard about the “digitalisation” and/or “digital transformation” of [insert sector here] are innumerable,” comments Alicia Rojo Santos in a blog piece for Hanover Communications, The Digital Transformation Of The Pharmaceutical Sector In The EU2 

According to Santos, an Ernst & Young survey recently highlighted that healthcare is behind other industries when it comes to implementing digital processes and measures. This survey was published over a year prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, yet the European Commission (EC) acknowledged this issue when discussing the digital transformation of health and care in the Digital Single Market2. Santos comments that if digitalisation of the healthcare sector had been essential before the pandemic, the importance of technological advances in the pharmaceutical sector was only reinforced thereafter. 

“When speaking about advancing technological processes within healthcare, we tend to focus on the public side of health systems. However, the private sector plays a key role in promoting innovation and supporting public entities in ensuring a sustainable approach to prevention, diagnosis and treatment,” said Santos. She outlines the following key steps to a smooth transition into a digital future:   

Understanding the role played by digitalisation in the pharmaceutical sector 

Santos explains: “The quest to research, develop and deliver a vaccine for Covid-19 in record time has been a testament to the digital revolution in the life sciences sector. Companies may consider that the return for developing new treatments for (relatively) short-lived pandemics will not cover their investment. Efficient use of resources and streamlining processes can be achieved partly through digital solutions. Major changes in the way supply and distribution chains work, the management of clinical trials and the use of digital communication platforms have been witnessed in many companies this year, as acknowledged by the Pharma Industry Review.   

“Whilst Covid-19 may have accelerated digitalisation, a shift in the pharmaceutical sector’s approach to developing treatments, aligned with scientific innovation, has played a key part. As companies have moved from developing ‘blockbuster’ drugs to more personalised medicines that are tailored to smaller demographics (and even individuals), greater access to data and improved data analytics have been key.  

“If the benefits of investing in digitalisation are clear, why is the pharmaceutical industry lagging behind? A major obstacle is the culture of the sector, which tends to be very risk-averse. As the lives and livelihoods of people are at stake, the pharmaceutical industry is subject to major regulatory controls. This partly explains the conservative approach towards change, as companies are careful to ensure compliance. Regulatory change also moves slowly, whilst scientific and digital advances move quickly, making innovation challenging.” 

A European Commission that promotes digitalisation in the pharmaceutical sector 

In November 2020, the European Commission published the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe, which includes the value of a technological “shake-up”2 and highlights its connection to the growth of the pharmaceutical sector. The strategy outlines specific measures that will be implemented, digitalisation being a major theme in supporting a competitive and innovative European pharmaceutical industry2.   

Santos commented: “The European health data space is part of the wider desire to build a Health Union and is to be based on three tenets: a strong system of data governance and rules for data exchange; data quality; and strong infrastructure and interoperability. Whilst the technicalities around this are expected to be included in the anticipated legislative proposal on a European health data space in Q4 2021, there are some aspects that industry should be wary about.  

“As EFPIA has pointed out “any rules or principles that would needlessly impede the flow of data into or out of the EU must be avoided.” However, to what extent will this be possible within the current framework? Data protection rules might have to be eased, especially in a sector such as healthcare where regulation is particularly tight. Current rules and regulations might actually be an obstacle to the more widespread use of patient data by pharmaceutical companies.  

“Whilst the secondary use of data is covered, the tendency has been to focus on making it available for “healthcare research” purposes (also mentioned in the strategy), which tends to cover mainly academia. The strategy highlights the desire to promote improved data exchange and use through greater collaboration between the public and private sector, including through the Innovative Health Initiative – a collaborative platform for pre-competitive research and innovation. Once again though the main beneficiaries appear to be academia, not-for-profits and SMEs. These are certainly essential to achieve innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, but one cannot forget the role of bigger pharmaceutical players that have proven to be key in confronting many of the health challenges of 2020.” 

B3y0nd d4t4  

“Data is not the only aspect covered in the strategy in relation to digitalisation”, Santos explains. She says the strategy states:  

“Digital transformation is affecting the discovery, development, manufacture, evidence generation, assessment, supply and use of medicines. Medicines, medical technologies and digital health are becoming increasingly integral to overarching therapeutic options. These include systems based on artificial intelligence for prevention, diagnosis, better treatment, therapeutic monitoring and data for personalised medicines and other healthcare applications.  

“Healthcare 2.0 is here, and the Commission is eager to make sure that all EU member states have access to novel tools to make healthcare systems efficient and aligned with the advances taking place at the scientific and technological levels. This is to be achieved through the revision of pharmaceutical legislation to “adapt to cutting-edge products, scientific developments … and technological transformation” in 2022, as well as increasing the Commission’s support for collaborative projects to promote the use of “high performance computing and artificial intelligence in combination with EU health data for pharmaceutical innovation” between 2021 and 2022.   

“Questions remain around the detail and whether the required cultural change will be forthcoming, alongside regulatory change. There is also the challenge of data availability for the life sciences industry, as many of the exciting developments, such as AI, heavily depend on ample datasets of good-quality information.” 



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