Webinar Summary: UK Life Sciences Roadmap - How Can We Attract, Retain and Develop Diverse People to R&D Roles?



On the 1st July 2020, the UK Government published its UK Research and Development Roadmap that reaffirmed their commitment to increasing UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and to increase public funding for R&D to £22 billion per year by 2024/25. Deploying such investment to ensure the UK remains a powerhouse of innovation and improving the health, wellbeing and prosperity of UK citizens. Grand aspirations but the Roadmap set out challenges that must be faced to deliver those outcomes. Among these, was posing of the questions “how can we attract, retain and develop talented and diverse people to R&D roles?” and “How can we make R&D for everyone?”

Attracting the best people and increasing diversity in the workforce is essential for success and that is influenced by a number of factors. These include the pull of the location, the reputation of the industry and the need for the sector to engage skill sets and approaches from outside the traditional disciplines as technologies and therefore approaches to R&D evolve. The panel discussion, instigated by Mills & Reeve and One Nucleus, explored the above factors in some depth whilst trying to identify the key elements when it comes to addressing the questions set within the Roadmap.

The Panel:

Invited for their experience of numerous aspects including building teams, investing in innovation and infrastructure, entrepreneurship, employment law, Learning and Development and Research & Development. The panel consisted of:

James Fry, Partner and Head of Life Sciences Practice, Mills & Reeve (Chair)

Melanie James, Partner, Employment and HR Law, Mills & Reeve

Crissy Powers, Global HR Business Partner, BioPharma R&D, AstraZeneca

David Parfrey, Executive Chairman, Anglia Innovation Partnership

Jason Mellad, CEO, Start Codon

The Highlights:

Setting the scene for the discussion, reflections were shared on how the Life Science sector had responded during the current pandemic. The appetite for collaboration and its ability to be flexible and adapt were traits highlighted. These seem characteristics that have defined the sector’s ethos for some time as well as the nature of the individuals within it. It is clear, networking and contacts are valued hence post-pandemic restrictions one would expect to see some degree of reversion to physical gathering over remote engagement as companies, collaborations and teams are built. Some key points relating to the attraction and retention of talent raised during the session can be summarised as follows:

  • Creative On-boarding – The remote working has meant new recruits to any company have largely been on-boarded without face-to-face meetings. Whilst the can-do attitude prevailed, normal bureaucracy was breached, and on-boarding was repeatedly achieved successfully.
  • Possible vs Preferable – The panel considered whether, in light of the pandemic and the impending Brexit situation, whether attraction of people to the region’s companies was still sufficiently strong to attract Europe-based candidates. Furthermore, with recent experience would some staff rather work remotely from their home country than relocate to the UK. Counterintuitive perhaps, insight was shared that the trend had not so much been a drop off in Europe-to-UK relocation, but employees seeking to go from UK-to-Europe to be based near family during the pandemic, but that will potentially reverse post-pandemic if preferable for the business need.
  • Global vs Local Village – Connecting virtually over recent months, the World has felt smaller in many ways, so the importance of place has a questionable dimension post-Covid-19 potentially. Cluster theory has long articulated the benefit of a connected, physically close community of similar minded innovators. However, the online partnering and networking of late has shown it is the connectivity that is key rather than the distance perhaps. It may not be that binary. As a cluster, Cambridge and its East of England neighbours is an exemplar region where disciplines such as genomics, biologics and tech/AI are in close proximity where the physical interactions stimulate innovation – The Medici Effect. The recently demonstrated option to be based almost anywhere and still operate may suggest an alternative view although the remote option requires a solid foundation of relationships locally to be built first. Thereafter, connecting complementary communities to create the global cluster should be effective, with data rather than people needing to travel.
  • Buy, Borrow or Grow – The conversation considered the future skills and talent needs for the sector and how companies will create the right teams. The convergence of technology and biomedical research clearly shows the growing need for digital skills in the sector to support modern R&D strategies for example. Government support of apprenticeships is welcomed in enabling companies to grow their own talent in combination with hiring ready qualified or out-sourcing to access expertise. The attraction does not happen by accident but through directed effort and engagement and the sector needs to embrace the challenge. Where building diverse teams is the goal, companies must consider their recruitment and staff development process, including how the vacancy is advertised, shortlisting and vitally who they place on the interview panel.
  • Destinations and Journeys – Investing in the infrastructure to attract and enable world class R&D is vital for both individual companies and Government if the world’s best talent is to arrive and stay in the UK. Ambitious researchers want access to cutting edge facilities in areas such as laboratory automation, imaging and digital capacity. Lifestyle outside of work is also important as is the reputation and connectivity to collaborators in other regions. A location seeking to attract the best must be a destination for those not just seeking a job but a destination that allows those individuals to build their journeys.
  • Power Skills – Whilst the rate of change in communication technology has possibly never been faster, it should not be overlooked that effective communication is a skill not a technology. The ability to engage an audience, network, lead diverse teams, articulate challenges to the solution providers and mobilise all stakeholders behind a vision are key. To date, these attributes have often been referred to as ‘soft skills’ since assessment in our sector has generally been based on technical and scientific qualification. Increasingly, far from being viewed as soft, these are now recognised as essential skills of successful people and businesses. To that end, they must be skills that are nurtured throughout education and employment.


The panel discussed some wide-ranging aspects of how the UK, and its constituent private and public businesses, will attract R&D leaders from around the world to complement their home-grown peers. The pandemic has shown a spotlight on the sector, propelling its sense of purpose and potential to the general population and may now resonate with a wider future labour pool. It has also highlighted how flexibility, diversity and opportunity are going to be key attributes for employers to attract and retain great teams.

To be the destination of choice, the region will need to deliver the best possible infrastructure through both private and public investment. The UK Government must deliver on the R&D funding targets within the Roadmap, ensure the Global Talent Portal and immigration policy are effective and retains engagement in major EU programmes where possible post Brexit. As for the employers, the call is to embrace diversity and create careers not just jobs. A global destination will need to ensure it has global connectivity for that talent pool to collaborate and work with leaders elsewhere. The underlying skills of communication, teamwork, problem solving, creative thinking and leadership are imperatives to teach the next generation and need to be valued and supported by businesses and policy makers alike.

Tony Jones
CEO, One Nucleus