Mobile researchers: where are they going and why is it important?

Photo by Waleed Alzuhair

This post was originally published on the Biochemical Society blog on 17 December 2015.

The pharmaceutical sector in the UK has changed a lot over the last several years. The drug discovery process has gone from being largely the domain of big pharma companies to a more collaborative and multidisciplinary approach where academia, charities, small-medium enterprises (SMEs) and the National Health Service are working together.

While you have probably heard of industry-academia partnerships, it is likely that you haven’t thought of the role that the learned societies can play in supporting them. The Biochemical Society together with the Royal Society of Biology, British Pharmacological Society and the Royal Society of Chemistry have formed a Drug Discovery Pathways Group (DDPG). This partnership aims to improve ‘researcher mobility’ by working with industry, academia and funders to help establish an environment where researchers are able to move from one sector to another without impeding their career progression.

One of the ways DDPG supports researchers is by organising a biennial Researcher Mobility Workshop. This event, held on 7-8 December this year enables researchers from different backgrounds (eg. molecular bioscience, chemistry, clinical sciences) to network and explore possible collaborations in drug discovery. A high point of the workshop was listening to senior scientists (who acted as mentors during the sessions) from the major pharmaceutical companies, such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Lily and others, talking about their careers. It was inspiring to hear the mentors share their career paths, as some were not as straightforward as you might think. Some of them started as teachers and then ended up in industry, while others first started in industry but then became academics.

Chicheley Hall. Photo by Lawrence OP

All of them said that transferring between different sectors has tremendously advanced their skills, expanded their networks and allowed career progression. Skills needed in drug discovery are vulnerable, as the general downsizing of many big pharmaceutical companies has reduced training opportunities for scientists, therefore enabling multidisciplinary teams and partnerships between industry and academia can ensure the best talent can work together on creating new medicines and helping patients in real terms.

The two-day workshop divided the attendees into multidisciplinary teams to allow them to draw on each other’s expertise and put them to work by giving them a drug licencing challenge. For the challenge, we gave some information on a fictional drug and the participants had to critically look at it, do some research online, consult the mentors and come up with a recommendation on whether the drug should be approved or not and any areas of concern. All teams did extremely well posing a real challenge for mentors to choose the winner of a £3,000 cash prize.

There were also designated sessions where researchers had a chance to raise their concerns and talk about researcher mobility. The main challenges to researcher mobility are finding a common purpose, for example,  academic success is often measured in terms of published high impact papers and citations while in pharma that isn’t a priority;  intellectual property ownership, confidentiality of findings and data (confidentiality can have different definitions between the sectors and the partners also have to agree if, when and how the research is published), lack of time and opportunities to network and finding mentors.

It was great to meet and have a chat with some of our members. Youcef Mehellou, a lecturer in medicinal chemistry at the University of Birmingham commented: “The workshop provided me with a unique opportunity to interact with clinicians, biologists, chemists and drug discovery experts from pharma. Critically, it highlighted the impact of mobility between academic and pharma on the progress of research and career development. As an academic, this has added a new dimension in thinking about my future research career particularly in terms of co-working with pharma to advance and realise the full impact of my research, a possibility that I didn’t fully considered before taking part in this workshop.”

It is important to support researcher mobility and the learned societies can make a real difference by organising networking events and workshops, collating resources and addressing other points raised. The Researcher Mobility Workshop was a useful event not only for the attendees but also for learned societies as we were able to collect feedback and hear more about the real challenges that the researchers are facing in their careers.