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Ideas Foundation

17 May 2019

Matthew Gibbard from the British Society for Immunology outlines details how supporting immunology can propel UK R&D

The UK is the world leader in immunology, ranking first amongst the G7 countries for the quality of research. But a recent report from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), laid bare the threat posed by a widening skills gap. It listed immunology as an area of significant apprehension, with over 50% of member pharmaceutical companies stating that a widening skills gap was a cause for concern, and 72% of respondents to the survey saying that practical skills in immunology were either a concern or a major concern. With the UK life sciences sector investing more in research and development than aerospace, computer programming and information services combined, their collective voice must be listened to.

Because of the paradigm shift in how drugs are being developed, e.g. with a redoubled demand for antibodies such as in cancer immunotherapy, immunology faces increasing demand. It is therefore especially troubling that it is the most experienced staff where the biggest gap is being faced, suggesting that inward investment is needed throughout the ‘career lifecycle’ of immunologists. This is echoed by concerns about the entire pipeline, with post-doc, PhD, and graduate recruitment, being raised by every respondent.

A more glass half full view is that the fact that a big part of the skills gap is being driven by increasing demand for immunologists across a number of drug development areas, from cancer immunotherapy to enlisting vaccine development in the fight against microbial resistance to antibiotics, really demonstrates that immunology is at the very cutting edge of scientific advancement and wider public health efforts. A similar picture can be found emerging for genomics where the same drivers of change are also fostering a widening skills gap. Interestingly, recent advances have seen experimental therapies combine these two disciplines using genomics to map the DNA of a tumour, whilst employing immunology to replicate the patient’s tumour-infiltrating lymphocytes that recognise the tumour’s genetic defects and will actively attack the cancer.

It is for this reason that the British Society for Immunology (BSI) is calling for a specifically targeted capacity building approach to the spending of 2.4% of GDP in R&D by 2027, focusing on the fields within the life sciences that have been identified as needing investment the most. In practice, this will mean focusing on several strata: the individual, the institutional, and the national. The individual level will mean developing the skills of existing teams and researchers through measures such as training programmes and scholarships and ensuring that there are opportunities for them to publish and promote their research findings, whilst making sure that there is a healthy stream of candidates coming through to the graduate level. At an organisational level, we must develop the capacity of research departments in academia and in industry, ensuring that they are funded in the short term and can continue on a sustainable footing for long term benefit. Thirdly, at a national level, we must ensure that sector wide structures are in place to support R&D at all levels and that the political and regulatory climate is responsive to removing barriers, whilst encouraging facilitators.

We believe that it is only by taking this ambitious specifically targeted approach to capacity building in disciplines like immunology that have seen their supply and demand curve shift thanks to exciting new innovations, that the UK will be able to maintain its global leadership and take advantage of the opportunities opening up to us.

Matthew Gibbard is Policy and Public Affairs Manager from the British Society for Immunology.

This thought piece will be the first in a series, highlighting the transformational effect that increasing the UK’s R&D intensity could have on discovery, quality of life, local regions and more. You can follow the series on our website or through Twitter, using #CaSEforresearch.  

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