BQ Live Debate: Life Sciences

BQ Live Debate: Life Sciences

What is the nature of the skills challenge in the Life Sciences sector in the North East and how do we address this?

Taking Part:

  • Alison Shaw – strategic director North East Futures UTC
  • Roy Sandbach – director of the National Centre for Ageing Science and Innovation
  • Derek Marshall – chief workforce strategist and planner at NHS Health Education North East
  • David Simpson – chief executive Glythera
  • Professor Michael Whitaker - Professor of Physiology in the Faculty of Medical Sciences at Newcastle University
  • Arun Harish – corporate business development manager strategy and futures CPI
  • Emma Banks – chief executive Datatrial
  • Margaret Rowe – associate dean business engagement Northumbria University Faculty of Health and Life Science
  • Sally Old – head of regulatory and DPMK Arcinova
  • Stuart Penny - operations director, High Force Research
  • Dale Athey – chief executive Orla Protein Technologies
  • Sam Whitehouse – chief operating officer QuantumDX Group
  • Joanne McCarthy – regional head (North East and Yorkshire) Bionow
  • Hans Moller – innovation director at North East LEP
  • Caroline Theobald – BQ chair
  • Alison Shaw: Opened the debate by welcoming the participants and explaining how North East Futures is intended to help tackle significant skills shortages, particularly in Life Sciences and digital sectors, which, while a national problem, are magnified in the region. “I think our system is letting young people down because it’s not helping them to understand what the opportunities are and then it’s not preparing them well enough for those opportunities. I don’t think it’s appropriate to blame education providers, I think it’s much more appropriate to look forwards and to find a way, which we haven’t yet in this country. Other countries have, where technical education has a high status and works very closely with employers, productivity is higher and youth unemployment is very significantly lower.’’ She added “I would like to know, when we’re up and running, what you would like to be able to say about the young people who are coming out of the school, about what difference the school is making and why you might be proud to be associated with this school.’’ She pointed out that North East Futures was part of a nationwide movement of University Technical Colleges, UTCs, which hope to be exemplars of high quality partnership between employers and educators. “The thing I feel most strongly about is the need for us to engage sustainably with the employers. There are many superb initiatives going on, but how to we sustain it and scale it.’’

    Dale Athey: Explained that Orla Protein Technologies is a university spin-out company, focused on biotechnology and protein engineering and most of its customers are international. “We are looking to grow and one of the challenges we face in the short term is to access the skills that we need to make that transition.’’

    David Simpson: Explained that Glythera is a biotechnology company that moved from Bath to Newcastle. It works with the majors but is also developing its own product pipeline. "We’ve been through the challenges of bringing on board a technical team and it is challenging. We accept the challenges because of the type of product class we work on and that we have to bring people in relatively early in their life cycle of training and that’s fine. Where we really struggle is with the senior level execs and that’s a real challenge. If I had one real need: from an employer and our company’s perspective, it’s engaging [young people] early enough. You need to have that level of engagement early in a student’s life, it’s too late once they’ve come out of university.

    Jo McCarthy: Explained that Bionow is a membership organisation for businesses in the Life Sciences and Health Care sectors. She said: “I visit businesses across the North East and they are often lamenting their inability to recruit and also to retain the correctly skilled people. As well as the lack of engagement of younger people in STEM subjects and graduates not being work-ready, my personal bugbear is the softer skills that you need to be able to deal with people. People can be customer facing from day one and that’s not always addressed and given due attention.’’

    Prof Michael Whitaker: Said that his background was in research but had a strong interest in business. He said: “I was really keen to get involved with the school because there’s a dimension missing in education, which is its relevance. People learn a lot in school about this that and the other but they don’t really quite understand why they’re learning it. What we need to do in this school is to show the relevance of what they are being taught and you can only do that by having employers involved in that. The important thing tonight is to think about how businesses can help us provide that relevance.

    Emma Banks: Explained that Datatrial is a software technology and clinical research company working in specialist supply chains, particularly in clinical trials. She described the frustration of interviewing candidates who lack softer skills and employability skills. She added: “I don’t think it’s entirely clear what the opportunity is for young people and our education system is geared up to measuring As to Cs and not necessarily other skills that kids might have that are not valued in school.’’ She said her business needed a range of people with different skills, but “ultimately I need people who can talk to a customer, who’ve got good communication skills and who can potentially sell and those are things that are just not coming through our education system’’.

    Hans Moller: He said that he had been chief executive of one of the largest science parks in Scandinavia in Lund in Sweden. He explained that there was no skills gap in Sweden and had been surprised to find one in the North East. He suggested that it was important to tell young people and their parents about the career opportunities in various sectors in the North East economy. “Many times it is the parents who are holding back young people. The young people can have a high aspiration and a big dream but often they are held back by the family. We need to be better at communicating the opportunities that are already here in front of them.’’

    Sally Old: Said that Arcinova is a new contract research and development company based in Alnwick with some 80 clients ranging from small biotech to big pharma. The company works with local schools, giving work experience and hosting school visits to help them put their learning into context. “Breadth is a key thing for us, as well as depth. We’ve recruited some graduates recently and we’ve not had any problems recruiting but students often have focused on the modular side but not necessarily putting it in the broader context and having transferable building blocks for other parts of the pharmaceutical industry.’’

    Arun Harish: Explained that he was responsible for strategic business development at CPI, which is a founding member of the UK’s catapult system, as part of the high value manufacturing catapult and its role is to translate research into commercial propositions, acting as an innovation integrator. He emphasised the importance of collaboration and of multiple disciplines coming together and everything underpinned by digital technology. “In a nutshell we are trying to enable disruptive innovations, innovations that will change the way we do things. Two of the things I would like to discuss this evening is, how can we inculcate the ideas around entrepreneurship within the younger generation early in their careers and how can we get them to think about what the future might offer them. Ten or twenty years from now there are likely to be scenarios that we can’t today clearly see, though we can see the trends. How can we translate that into any form of curriculum in the UTC? “Our education system is geared up for measuring As to Cs, not necessarily other skills that kids might have” The second thing is cross disciplinarity or multi-disciplinarity. I think the future is multidisciplinary, history was multi-disciplinary, so how can we get the next generation to be multi-disciplinary?’’

    Roy Sandbach: Outlined his experience in various research and development roles in industry and academia. He pointed out that the North East is poorer in many respects than the rest of the UK with high levels of people not in education, employment or training at around 21% of 18 to 24-year-olds and at A-Level the lowest level of A* and A grades in the country and also fewer young people studying sciences. “This is despite the fact that at primary school children love the stuff we do, it’s at secondary school that somehow they start not to love the stuff we do. That’s down to us, somehow we’ve just got to get out there and change that concept in a disruptive innovation way. That’s why I got involved with the UTC as a governor.’’

    Stuart Penny: Explained that Durham based High Force Research is engaged in organic synthesis, making active pharmaceutical ingredients for clinical study, manufacturing organic electronic molecules and nanotechnology. He said: “The kind of people we employ have to be very flexible in their approach to chemistry and the way they look at chemistry and the way they do chemistry. We don’t have a problem employing chemists per se and most of the chemists we’ve employed recently have come from North East universities.’’ He added, however, that the company has difficulty in finding analytical chemists, who have not only to be good scientists but also highly accurate with good basic skills such as weighing and pipetting. They also have difficulty in recruiting for QA, quality assurance which calls for a wide range of knowledge and skills. “Basically, I think, if you are going to turn out a good chemist, you need to be a good scientist beforehand.’’ He said he believed vocational training could help to make a good scientist with the necessary practical skills. To support such vocational training, he called for a greater availability of part-time science degrees, but universities can only do this if industry supports it by sending people to study for the degrees.

    Margaret Rowe: Explained that she was attached to Health and Life Sciences at Northumbria University with responsibility for enterprise activity, partnership working, collaborative research, entrepreneurship, employability and enterprise. The university had made its greatest improvement in employability in students in the last two years by collaborating closely with employers and focusing on softer skills. She added: “My absolute passion is looking at skills challenges for the life sciences, in the widest concept of life sciences. It is about ensuring young people have the aspirations, they have the skills-set and that we are looking at widening participation across students. Students frequently don’t see that there is any other choice than going to university or getting a job and the big push now should be around apprenticeships, higher apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships and universities need to do a lot more. We should be working with you to co-create programmes reflecting what is required in the future workforce.’’

    Sam Whitehouse: Explained that Newcastle based QuantuMDX makes hand-held diagnostics. The company was originally based in South Africa and chose Newcastle as giving greater potential for growth with a huge talent pool available in all the northern universities. He said: “Giving people an opportunity for me is more important than anything else. I like to go out, I’ve done four Brownie events in the past year, I’ve gone to Walkergate Primary School and set fire to magnesium.’’ But he also emphasised the importance of engaging with parents. “We can organise and make available as much as we can, but it comes down to individual levels sometimes and I think opening people’s eyes is most important. For people at school now, the jobs they’ll do when they graduate from university don’t exist yet.’’ He said that the business community should be more open and businesses willing to share candidates’ CVs.

    Derek Marshall: Explained that Health Education England is an NHS organisation responsible for education, training and the nature of the future NHS workforce. He said: “I’m really keen about the UTC for a number of reasons. I’m determined that we maintain the NHS in the North East as being the best performing NHS in the country. I’m also passionate about getting people’s mind-set away from just doctors and nurses. We employ about 3,000 scientists in the North East in the NHS.’’ He said it was necessary to work closely with the universities and to look at the ongoing training of the workforce. “We also need to future-proof not just the scientist community but the whole healthcare community with some of the life sciences and the wider science knowledge. If we don’t do that, the NHS will fall over in 10 or 20 years. What I’m passionate about for the UTC is not just embedding the science in the 150 students going through each year but in spreading the wider message that life science is not just for scientists, it’s for the whole population.’’

    Caroline Theobald: “We’ve had a lot of discussion and a lot of things have come up. There are holes all over the place, problems at universities, problems at secondary school, problems in leadership, recruiting people at chief exec level. There’s an awful lot of problems, how do we all work together to start finding some solutions when the target is moving? Is it about collaboration and skills sharing? Is that a practical way of starting?’’

    Derek Marshall: “We always get put off by things always changing and things will always change. I think we’ve got to head off in the direction that we think it’s going to be and accept we might meander on the journey a little. We’re sometimes risk averse about taking that first step.’’

    Alison Shaw: “Part of what we teach children is that things are always changing and that they have to adapt to that and be excited by it.’’

    Margaret Rowe: “Youth are prepared for change but we are not as good at transitioning to change and unfortunately we are the ones who are shaping and leading that activity. We do need to collaborate but we do need to be looking to the future and how we bring people together to collaborate as multiple organisations.’’

    Sally Old: Emphasised the importance of openness and flexibility and encouraging
    students not to be frightened of change.

    Alison Shaw: Praised employers such as Arcinova which were keen to help. “But what we are trying to do is interfere more in the way the curriculum is designed and then deliver.’’ She explained that North East Futures was looking for a long-term engagement from employers. The current curriculum is not enthusing students nor providing the required level of skills. “They should get their exams but they should get their exams as a by-product rather than as a sole defining factor.’’

    Roy Sandbach: Said there was no high profile individual champion to deal with the skills challenge in Life Sciences. Also he pointed out that when traditional industries such as shipbuilding or chemicals were thriving, they were highly visible. “It was where school children and their parents could see there were jobs. We have a very different business infrastructure with very few really big places but which are not commonly described as big places to work and we have some really fantastic smaller companies but that isn’t a coherent, visible grouping. I’d love to think we could recreate that sort of ‘sense of big’ by a grouping of people, so we didn’t all talk separately and go into schools separately but that we did a big combined effort with parents.’’

    Caroline Theobald: “Could Bionow do that Jo? Could you bring everyone together?’’

    Jo McCarthy: “As you were talking, I was thinking Northern Powerhouse because that’s the thing that’s at the forefront of my mind. We don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of Brexit and whether it’s still going to be on the agenda. As a northern organisation it’s becoming one big Northern Powerhouse noise-making machine to let people know we are here and that we are formidable.’’

    David Simpson: Referred to Alison Shaw’s point about making sure that businesses got what they wanted from the UTC. “We’ll have dinner in 10 or 15 years’ time and we’ll tell you. That shouldn’t preclude us from going hard into this now and making plans for where we should be. Let’s get them [students] engaged at this point and let’s drive the enthusiasm. I recruit for enthusiasm time and time again.’’

    Emma Banks: Expressed concern that some teachers charged with employer engagement have never worked in industry and “that’s a huge issue’’. She added: “I think fundamentally our education system kills enthusiasm. And I’m married to a teacher. Our biggest challenge is, first of all, awareness of what the opportunity could be – you could love science and not work in a lab and that’s really important. You could work in social media, you could work in writing, you could work in sales, you could work in the press, there’s so many opportunities. We have to fundamentally get in there and enthuse kids about what we do.

    Arun Harish: Said that science education in the UK is much more applied and practical than in India where it is highly theoretical and students leave university without practical knowledge and skills. “I was also under the impression we had something interesting here, if you are saying this is not interesting, what is interesting?’’

    Emma Banks: “It’s emotional engagement. `If you learn this, you’ll get that mark’ approach is applied, but it’s not emotionally connected.’’

    Dale Athey: “If you’re a scientist, what does that mean? Is that highly regarded? I don’t think it is in this country.’’

    David Simpson: “If you’re a scientist, you’re classed as a bit geeky.’’

    Sam Whitehouse: “If you took kids down to Cambridge and showed them what some of these guys have achieved – and some of them have achieved millions – and tell them that’s what they could achieve.’’ He said they should be made aware of the possible rewards of being a scientist, such as high pay and travel opportunities. He also emphasised the importance of continuing to learn and having mentors.

    Alison Shaw: “I want to come back to Arun’s question: when is it exciting for children? To come back to what we really want your help with, because it’s really what makes it exciting, it’s, first of all, having very high expectations of young people and putting a stop to this notion that a young person is `unbelievable’ and `amazing’ if they do something exceptional, because most of them are capable of doing exceptional. The times when I see children most excited and most engaged are when they’ve been given a project by somebody who’s not a teacher. As a teacher I would facilitate the way they address it and they will do that project and, because it’s for you, they will do it to an exceptional degree, right at the edge of their capabilities because you’re going to come back and tell them if it’s any good. That is when they get excited.’’

    Roy Sandbach: “What is the nature of the skills challenge in the Life Sciences sector? You could argue that it’s a vocabulary or an articulation question for young people, we are not speaking to them in their language often. For example, I suspect that some of the really exciting things that go on in Life Sciences we never put on Instagram, we never have them on Snapchat, we certainly don’t communicate effectively with them through Twitter. If there was one thing that we could all do, even the people around this table, we could start to say to ourselves, `I wonder how we get a thousand young people to follow us to be aware every day of the things that we do’. It’s getting the projects that we do into their lives. We have to use their vocabulary.’’

    Caroline Theobald: “Hans, in Sweden you said there is no such thing as a skills shortage. Why can you do it in Sweden and we can’t?’’

    Hans Moller: “Lund is a town of 80,000 people. Part of that town is a university with
    40,000 students, there’s a science park with 15,000 people working in it every day, in a town of 80,000 people. If I ask anyone, even small kids, `Where’s the innovation going on in this town?’ everyone would point to the science park, it’s so obvious to people and they will know someone who works there. In this region it’s not obvious at all.’’

    Sam Whitehouse: Pointed to the danger of having one big employer but suggested that phoenix companies can grow from the ashes of a big employer closing or relocating. He also said that too much emphasis was placed on bad news stories.

    Hans Moller: “We have to communicate with young people but also with their parents.’’ He suggested a campaign targeting parents with young children.

    Alison Shaw: “There are people in the know who can talk about the economic strengths of the region. I’m certain that the largest proportion of people won’t know that, so there’s a hugely important communication task.’’

    Sally Old: Raised the issue of women being underrepresented in science.

    Derek Marshall: Pointed out that the chief scientific officer in the NHS is a woman but it is not publicised. 

    Roy Sandbach: “Last year’s president of the Royal Society of Chemistry was a woman and the head of the Royal Academy of Engineering is a woman.’’

    Sam Whitehouse: “There are more female graduates than males.’’

    Prof Michael Whitaker: “The crux of this to me is that this is about industry-led change and that’s the most difficult thing. We don’t have industry-led initiatives.’’ He gave the example of the region’s pharmaceutical companies that manufacture a third of all the pharmaceuticals made in the UK but this sector is not visible. “We have to find a way of making it visible.’’ However, industry will not lead. “It’s visibility and leadership. Leadership shouldn’t come from the LEP or from me but from you, or us. We have to think how we can galvanise and start doing it and not just talk about it.’’ He added that the UTC could be a catalyst, helping to change the way people think about education. He went on to argue that there could be benefits on collaborating over finding and recommending talented individuals and if it does happen then it should be made more visible.

    Caroline Theobald: “I’m conscious that there are six business leaders here who all stand at the front of their own networks. If the six people in this room said ‘we want to engage with this and we will bring two or three people from our network,’ that might get somewhere towards the industry network that we are talking about. It’s about leveraging their networks.’’

    David Simpson: Said giving support to schools was not a problem but that making it exciting was the challenge. There was also the question of justifying to investors the time devoted to supporting schools.

    Emma Banks: Said it was a question of making what the sector does real and tangible to young people.

    Prof Michael Whitaker: Said it was in the interests of investors to have a skilled workforce which they need for their companies to flourish. “If everybody says somebody else should do it, then it will never get done.’’

    Dale Athey: Agreed that it would be difficult to justify the time spent to a board.

    David Simpson: “Investors don’t care. It’s about the return they are going to get on a five-year plan. My job is to find the talent.’’

    Arun Harish: “Larger corporates have a clear CSR agenda.’’

    Roy Sandbach: Said R&D expenditure in the North East was a fraction of that in
    other regions. “We just don’t have those big companies that bring that big business
    R&D, which is one of our problems because then our work becomes invisible.’’ He added that regarding peer group activity there was a sense that if activity could be “catalysed with a bit of money’’ and personal support it could achieve results. He cited the example of PubhD, a student initiative where PhD students meet in a pub and explain their
    research to each other. He suggested that those present could get young people in
    their organisations to meet and discuss their work, or they could sponsor sixth formers or undergraduates to do the same thing in the context of Life Sciences. He added: “We don’t have to do much other than be there for them.’’

    Stuart Penny: “I could name three or four people from our company who’d be willing to do that and that’s a mixture of PhDs and graduates.’’

    Margaret Rowe: “We have STEM ambassadors who go to the schools, working with the schools. But I think we are not really very good at publicising it and schools don’t always know about it. I think universities need to be the conduit between businesses and schools because we link with all of the organisations. Universities must do more.’’

    Sally Old: Suggested a virtual version using a chatroom or YouTube.

    Caroline Theobald: “The digital community has self-organised. They get together and
    there are all these networks that have sprung up. 

    Emma Banks: “The UTC is not set up to send people to university is it?’’

    Alison Shaw: “It will send a significant proportion to university and probably higher than the average but many will have either started apprenticeships or will be being prepared for apprenticeships.’’

    David Simpson: Asked how often students ask for help in finding a business.

    Alison Shaw: Said not many because of a failure to properly explain the labour market to young people. She added that science teachers in schools are under considerable time pressures and “are completely disconnected from what’s going on in the world of work’’.

    Prof Michael Whitaker: “I think many teachers suffer simply from lack of materials and not just knowledge.’’

    Derek Marshall: Emphasised the importance of the visibility of an industry’s presence. Described how when he was at school in Wallsend everyone knew there would be some kind of job available in the shipyards. “Somehow, we’ve got to get the message out that says there’s a vibrant Life Sciences industry in the North East. We are not going to have a physical presence but you’ve got to have that virtual presence.’’

    Emma Banks: “As an outsider my perception of the region is that it’s quite insular. It’s not very cosmopolitan and it’s behind other parts of the country in terms of its global outlook. I live in a village in South East Northumberland with a huge Procter & Gamble site and I can guarantee that most of the kids living in that village will think that they will end up at that Procter & Gamble site as their job because of its visibility and also because, from a parents’ point of view, most of those people have never left that village and their parents lived there. I think there’s a social and demographic challenge here to try to enlighten people to what’s outside.’’

    Derek Marshall: Argued that this could be used to the region’s advantage in retaining talent.

    Roy Sandbach: Said it was necessary to find hooks that interest people. He added that two things that influence children are that they can earn a lot of money, if they work hard, and they are attracted by and interested in invention.

    Caroline Theobald: Asked if there were any other points people wanted to make in terms of addressing the skills gap. 

    Alison Shaw: “Something that’s coming through loud and clear for me is communicating.’’

    Emma Banks: “Can we keep it simple? If you want to engage business it has to be simple.’

    Margaret Rowe: “It’s about true engagement and make the message simple and people will get involved and we, who are sitting round the table, have to cascade what we have been talking about to our colleagues and signpost what we are trying to achieve and then for people to commit and offer some sort of support.

    Jo McCarthy: “There is a lot of overlap in Life Sciences industry organisations and
    there’s work to be done there to simplify and streamline that to free up some resource that could then work with the UTC. We are perfectly placed to do something like that.’’

    Derek Marshall: “It comes back to presence. In the NHS we don’t sell enough that we have scientists. Sometimes people think, `Oh, it’s being in a lab’. It’s not. A lot of health care science is patient facing. We are looking to change that ethos. We’ve got to change what people think of science as a profession. Some people will see it as a bit geeky and it’s not. It’s hugely exciting and hugely innovative, hugely challenging and hugely wealth making – if you get it right.’’

    Roy Sandbach: “We’ve talked a lot about visibility and awareness and communication. These are three things which the region has given a message to central government on in the past few weeks. The region has said to central government, `You haven’t convinced us that there’s anything going on that is relevant to us’. I know from engagements in government and the civil service that this is a window of opportunity for us. If we are very clear about what we want to do in the Life Sciences sector from the point of view of popular awareness and popular communication, I suspect there’s a bit of an open door in London to support that for this region. Why? Because they know that there’s a disconnect with the population at large.’’

    Prof Michael Whitaker: Thanked everybody for attending the event. “I’m pretty sure, from what people have said tonight, that the UTC can count on you to help us and we’re very grateful.’’ He added that the ambition was that the UTC should be more than a school but should also be an IT and Life Sciences skills hub.