Skills shortages are only likely to increase for life sciences post-Brexit

Posted On: 
3rd May 2019

The UK’s life sciences sector is a thriving hub of research and innovation but with a loss of access to international talent, the vitality of the sector is at stake, writes Nabil Rastani.

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Brexit has led to a plethora of questions being raised around the future of the UK’s business policy environment. The implications are well known to be fraught with uncertainties both at a short and long-term basis. The life sciences sector, one of the most sensitive to socio-political shifts is especially concerned its impacts. In particular, there are fears that the UK’s departure from the EU will result in a loss of talented international workers who are imperative to the production of new, lifesaving medicines. 

These issues continue to remain unabated despite governmental efforts to portray Brexit as a golden opportunity for attracting international talent under the auspices of its ‘Global Britain’ strategy. Such bold statements have failed to allay the fears of the sector who continue to seek greater clarity and certainty around the UK’s broader relationship with EU post-Brexit.

Role of international talent in the life sciences sector

EU migrants play an essential role in advancing world-class medical innovation in the UK, from acting as skilled technicians in R&D to supporting the manufacturing and distribution of medicines. Demonstrated by the fact that 19 per cent of the workforce are EU citizens. European migrants also provide unique cultural experiences and specialist knowledge which UK workers sometimes lack. As the CBI articulated, if the country losses access to world class talent, the domestic sector would be at a “distinct competitive disadvantage”. 

Without a range of talented workers from different cultural backgrounds that could provide competing perspectives on drug production, the sector may develop a more insular and narrow approach that may reduce efficiencies. 

The interconnected nature of global pharmaceuticals, with offices based across Europe means that the sector relies on the frictionless movement of people between research facilities within the EU. According to the Sanger Institute, pan-European research cooperation is crucial to the development of new and life-saving drugs, and the loss of the freedom of movement risks harming this. 

Migration post-Brexit

The Government has made strides towards allaying the fears of skilled migrants by unilaterally committing to protecting their rights to remain the UK in the event of a no-deal. Moreover, the Spring Statement announced that there would be exemptions for PhD-level occupation rom the cap on high skilled visas from this autumn.  

However, the Government’s controversial immigration white paper has garnered a more lukewarm response from the sector. As Daniel Zeichner, chair of the APPG for Life Sciences said, the UK is “shooting [itself] in the foot” with regards to developing a ‘skilled-based’ system post-Brexit. Indeed, the high-level threshold cap of £30,000 for skilled immigrants has failed to consider the nuances associating in R&D. Indeed, many technical jobs are highly skilled but often pay below the threshold raising many questions yet unanswered by government policy. Such arbitrary restrictions will certainly result in a further downturn in the number of visa applicants who are accepted to enter the country. 

A truly Global Britain? 

Sector leaders have also raised concerns around the failure of Government to negotiate substantial global free-trade agreements that could have resulted in liberalising visa restrictions. Certainty, the lack of opportunity to gain talent from major scientific hubs such as the US, Canada and Japan as well as BRIC nations could have provided an opportunity to offset the loss of skilled European workers.

This is especially true considering that newly-industrialised BRIC nations have expanded their demographics to include a large proportion of university educated middle-classes who are keen to engage with medicinal innovations. However, the Government’s failure to reach an FTA with India due to its unwillingness to raise visa quotas has dashed hopes of an cosmopolitan Britain that welcomes a diverse pool of talent.

A post-Brexit world

A no-deal Brexit could result in even more uncertainty in an already tenuous political situation, with a cliff-edge exit from Europe significantly reducing the attractiveness of the UK for skilled international talent.  

This could result in a loss of confidence in investment from the industry. Evident from AstraZeneca’s announcement that they will be freezing all manufacturing investments into the UK due to economic uncertainty resulting from Brexit. All of this illustrates that at its current trajectory, the UK is at risk of losing its one of the jewels in its economic crown.  

Nabil Rastani is a Political Consultant at Dods Monitoring specialising in the Life Sciences, Pharmaceuticals and public health


What’s Next? To read more about the future of Life Sciences in the UK and a brief look ahead of important talks and events coming up, click here.