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Future skills for the life sciences

Scientific meeting


The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


Image credit: nicolas_

Read the conference report (PDF).

This conference will explore the skills required for a thriving life sciences sector in the UK and will highlight the creative ways that the future skills needs are being addressed.

On 11 March 2019, the day before the 'Future skills for the life sciences' conference, we will hold a workshop for early career professionals, offering the opportunity to discuss career challenges and expectations. The key points that emerge from this workshop will feed into the conference on 12 March 2019.

Attending this event

This open event is free to attend and is intended for those with an interest in the life sciences sector, from a variety of backgrounds including academia, industry, government, as well as regulatory and other scientific bodies.

Contact the Industry team for more information.

About the conference series

This meeting forms part of the Royal Society’s Transforming our Future series. The Transforming our Future meetings are unique, high-level events that address scientific and technical challenges of the next decade and bring together leading experts from wider scientific community, industry, government and charities.

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Event organisers

Select an organiser for more information

Schedule of talks

12 March


Registration and morning refreshments


Welcome remarks

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Sir John Skehel FMedSci FRS, Vice-President and Biological Secretary, The Royal Society

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An introduction from the Government Chief Scientific Adviser

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Sir Patrick Vallance FMedSci FRS, Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of Government Science and Engineering Profession, UK Government


The UK continues to have one of the most productive health and life sciences sectors in the world. There are enormous opportunities for growth and a skilled UK workforce is critical to success. We are in an era of real opportunity in life sciences and the GCSA will speak about STEM skills, data, the life science industry and the Industrial Strategy Life Sciences Sector Deal in this new era.

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Keynote: Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, Sir John Bell

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Sir John Irving Bell GBE FMedSci FREng FRS

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Initial training

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Professor Janet Hemingway CBE FMedSci FRS, Chair of Vector Biology and Former Director, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine

10:35-10:45 Preparing the future workforce for jobs that do not yet exist

Sherry Coutu CBE, entrepreneur, Chair of Founders4Schools, Workfinder and the Scaleup Institute, UK


Parents, educators, governments and students alike are seeking ways of preparing for jobs that do not yet exist.  

This is no surprise, given the rate at which economies are evolving, the fact that 95% of today’s net new jobs are created by companies less than five years old, and that the average number of jobs held by people between graduating and retiring is currently 25.

Sherry was commissioned by the UK government to write the Scaleup Report on UK economic growth which found that talent was the number one issue preventing our scaleup companies from realising their ambitions. She was an advisor to LinkedIn while they increased their members from 5 million to 500 million and she chairs Founders4Schools, Workfinder and Raspberry Pi (Trading) which work with parents, educators, governments and students in a number of countries. She will share case studies from a number of countries and sectors which look at how others are preparing their future workforces for jobs that don’t yet exist, and she will make recommendations on what we need to do to meet the needs of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy.

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10:45-10:55 Preparing researchers for an unknown future: cultures, behaviours & mindsets

Clare Viney, CEO, The Careers Research and Advisory Centre, UK


Being a successful researcher requires strategic thinking about objectives, skills and areas to develop. It should be based on thorough self-awareness and knowledge of career options. With an uncertain future, what competences, behaviours and attitudes should we develop in our researchers to enable them to thrive in tomorrow’s research environment? Given there are 110,000 postgraduate and over 40,000 postdoctoral researchers in the UK today, how can we develop researchers in higher education at scale to meet the needs of the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy?

Vitae is the global leader in supporting the career and professional development of researchers, experienced in working with governments and over 200 institutions in 20 countries as they strive for research excellence, innovation and impact. We have been a pivotal force since 1968, when we ran our first project to support transitions of doctoral researchers to industry.

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10:55-11:05 Doctoral training schemes and a 'team science' approach

Professor Jeanette Woolard, Associate Professor in Cardiovascular Pharmacology, University of Nottingham, UK


Jeanette Woolard has led the COMPARE and Nottingham activities aimed at promoting Team Science. This is an initiative that has focused on promoting a culture of collaboration, developing cross-institutional interactions, recognising the contribution of early career researchers and developing the careers of those who may be considered ‘outside’ the PI track. This Team Science approach has been well received by the Academy of Medical Sciences, the European Laboratory Research and Innovation Group (ELRIG) and the Royal Society. Her talk will focus on the implementation of Team Science within a competitive academic environment, highlight some successes, and consider the future challenges associated with this change in culture.

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11:05-11:15 What do current graduates look like to employers?

Adam Isle, Global Talent Acquisition Lead (Early Talent & MBA Programmes), AstraZeneca, UK


Graduate programmes offer ambitious students an opportunity to build the foundation for their future career. The best provide an invaluable combination of technical skills-based on the job training, with mentoring and wraparound support designed to develop the interpersonal skills required to shape the agenda and have an impact as a professional.

AstraZeneca identifies and develops its next generation of leaders by offering a wide range of experience and programmes aimed at inspiring, engaging and attracting talent. Whilst many students make strong applications and perform well during the interview and assessment process, some need additional support and encouragement to gain the skills and experience necessary to thrive.

What’s missing, and how can we create the environment and opportunities that set graduates up for success?

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11:15-11:25 Taking a non-degree route into science after school

Sarah Scott, Vector Manufacturing Specialist II, Adaptimmune


Sarah Scott is 28 and lives in Bedfordshire. She suffered a stroke at school when she was 18 and just about to complete her A Levels and take up a university place to study biology. The stroke caused paralysis and affected her ability to read, write, swallow and speak. Sarah could not take up her university place, so gained voluntary and work experience as a pathway to a scientific role. Sarah will describe the career path she has taken which has lead her to become a Vector Manufacturing Specialist II at Adaptimmune, working in the field of immunology to treat solid cancers, and the challenges of taking an ‘alternative route’ into industry with a disability.

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11:25-11:35 Experience of an apprenticeship programme

Charlotte Hughes, Associate Scientist, GSK, UK


Charlotte Hughes is an Associate Scientist and former apprentice working within Biopharm Process Research in the analytical team at GSK. Charlotte started her Level 5 apprenticeship at GSK in September 2015 studying at the University of Kent for a foundation degree (FdSc) in Applied Bioscience Technology and progressed onto the Level 6 qualification in 2018. In January 2018 Charlotte was awarded the Higher or Degree Apprentice of the Year 2017. Charlotte will reflect on her experience as a life science apprentice speaking about university study, on the job training, development and progression as someone who has taken an ‘alternative route’ into industry.

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11:35-12:05 Initial training: panel discussion




Re-training for multiple careers

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Steve Rees, VP Discovery Biology, Discovery Sciences, AstraZeneca

13:00-13:15 Returners: the barriers, the business case and the benefits

Dr Katie Perry, Chief Executive, The Daphne Jackson Trust, UK


Katie will provide an overview of the work of the Daphne Jackson Trust and in doing so will link it to three key areas for returners. She will explain the barriers to STEM researchers, particularly those in biosciences returning to research careers after a break for a family, caring or health reason.

She will articulate the business case for organisations who want to engage with returners, and finally clearly set out the benefits of working with returners. Katie will highlight the key features of Daphne Jackson Fellowships and why they are so successful in returning researchers back to careers, and keeping them there.

The Fellowships are individually tailored to each Fellow and offer the opportunity to conduct research alongside a retraining programme, which allows Fellows to refresh skills in the same research area they were in before their break or shift their area of expertise to widen their career prospects. Fellowships are for two or three years and are held predominantly in universities and research institutes, but a small number are in industry.

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13:15-13:30 Taking an access course to enter the life sciences as a second career

Professor Simon McQueen-Mason, CNAP Director and Chair in Materials Biology, University of York, UK


I am currently a Professor in the Biology Department at the University of York, and Director of the Centre for Novel agricultural Products in the Department. I am a plant scientist working in the area of developing the production of sustainable bio-based fuels and chemicals from plant biomass. I left school when I was seventeen, have no A levels and dropped Biology as a subject at school when I was 13. I will give an account of how I got from there to becoming a Professor in Plant Sciences, and some of the ups and downs I experienced along the way.

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13:30-13:45 Growing skillsets and networks, and evolving careers

Professor Chas Bountra, Professor of Translational Medicine, University of Oxford, UK


My training (still ongoing!) spans three broad phases. The first as a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer in academia, the second as a practical scientist growing into a science manager/leader in industry, and the current phase back in academia as faculty. In the first, I undertook practical ‘deep’ research, learnt to critique science, present data, write papers and grants, and teach. In industry, I learnt about the processes of target and drug discovery, and the various scientific, regulatory and commercial challenges, as well as the importance of long term goals, intermediate milestones, team-play and leadership. In the past decade or more back in academia I have had to secure resources for global partnerships with many academic institutes, patient groups and pharmaceutical companies. I have tried to focus on major global challenges, through innovative science, entrepreneurship, and collaboration, with all above stakeholders, governments and philanthropic funders. Common themes across these many years of learning are wonderful teachers, supervisors and mentors, the rapid pace of technological innovation, and the globalisation of goals and science.

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13:45-14:00 Life sciences as a second (or third, or fourth) career

Jonny Ohlson, Founder and CEO, Touchlight, UK


Jonny is founder and CEO of Touchlight. He is not a scientist and regularly suffers from bouts of impostor syndrome. But he believes passionately that life science is the new creative industry, and will describe how he has applied knowledge from his former creative careers (from Saatchi and Saatchi to Soho House) to building one of the world’s leading DNA technology companies.

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14:00-14:15 Re-training for multiple careers: panel discussion


Movement of people

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Professor Dame Julia Goodfellow DBE FMedSci, Chair of Public Health England & President of the Royal Society of Biology

14:15-14:25 Delivering an industry-led skills programme for the biotechnology sector in Scotland

Roger Kilburn, Chief Executive Officer, Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC)


The biotechnology sector requires skilled people from many technical disciplines. Some are established and some emerging. Delivering individuals with the right skills mix in the necessary numbers presents a real challenge for both the recruiters and educators. The IBioIC was established in 2014, it has worked with industry, higher and further education providers to solve this conundrum. This short talk will highlight how this problem was addressed, the programmes that have been delivered, and the impact is has had on the Industrial Biotechnology community in Scotland.

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14:25-14:35 Ser Cymru programme to bring talented scientists to Welsh universities

Dr Delyth Morgan, Head of Research Programme Development, Welsh Government Office for Science, UK


Scientists in Wales are productive, collaborative, impactful and in several cases, world leading, but recent reports have shown a lack of sufficient scale. In 2012, the then Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales (CSAW), Professor John Harries, put forward a plan to build capacity in three ‘Challenge’ areas: Advanced Engineering and Materials; Life Sciences and Health; and Low Carbon, Energy and Environment, known as Sêr Cymru. This £50 million programme was aimed at attracting a small number of the best scientific researchers from across the world to come Wales. In 2014, to build on the first programme’s success, Sêr Cymru II was developed by the next CSAW, Professor Julie Williams. This was a £57 million scheme involving Horizon 2020 funding working in synergy with the European Regional Development Fund.  It currently directly supports approximately 130 researchers through Research or Recapturing Talent Fellowships, ‘Rising Star’ Awards and Research Chair packages.

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14:35-14:45 A small company perspective of attracting and retaining talent

Aidan Courtney, Chief Executive Officer, Censo Biotechnologies, UK


Censo Biotechnologies is at the forefront of companies using patient derived induced Pluripotent Stem Cells (iPSCs) and their derivatives for drug discovery, most notably for diseases being associated with neuro-inflammation. Our success is founded on our ability to attract, develop and retain scientific researchers, typically from much larger organisations.

As the work and research environment of a small life science company may differ greatly to that found in academia or in a large corporate, companies like Censo have to ensure that their staff see the pros outweigh the cons of working is a small dynamic environment. In this short talk, I will discuss how at Censo we address this issue. I will also discuss how flexibility in the workplace can benefit research in all areas, as well as accelerate economic growth.

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14:45-14:55 The benefits of being located in the Cambridge cluster and the problems associated with rapid expansion

Dr Andy Williams, Vice President for Cambridge Strategy and Operations, AstraZeneca, UK


AstraZeneca have rapidly established a significant presence in the Cambridge area following the decision to relocate our global corporate headquarters to the Cambridge Biomedical Campus within a newly built R&D complex.  The move has enabled us to attract high quality scientists into the organization and we have developed strong and productive collaborations with the University of Cambridge, the local Research Institutes and biotechnology community.

Joining a booming life sciences cluster alongside a dynamic and evolving IT and digital technology sector provides an outstanding environment within which to innovate and explore new treatments for patients. However, rapid growth has put significant pressure on the local infrastructure. It is important that businesses such as AZ engage actively in identifying solutions to these challenges to enable the cluster to continue to flourish.

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14:55-15:05 The university workforce, attracting and retaining talent in the north-west and the impact of Brexit

Professor Anthony Hollander, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Impact and Professor of Stem Cell Biology, University of Liverpool, UK


Universities across the UK are well known for attracting research talent from home, from the EU and internationally and this is integral to the sector’s success. In line with the rest of the country, institutions in the North West are keen to train, attract and retain the best researchers to produce impactful, world-leading work, the benefits of which are felt regionally, nationally and internationally. This talk will cover: the current recruitment challenges for the sector, based on the latest Brexit position; the case for a northern equivalent to the ‘golden triangle’; and ideas for a new initiative to radically overhaul the development process for first-time postdoctoral researchers.

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15:05-15:30 Movement of people: panel discussion


Afternoon refreshments


Entrepreneurship and business skills

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Steve Bates OBE, CEO, BioIndustry Association

16:00-16:10 Enterprise education, why do it and where can it take you?

Professor Tim Dafforn, Professor of Biotechnology, University of Birmingham, UK


Historically the UK has always been one of the world's leading nations for knowledge generation. Our Higher Education Institutions continue to generate world class science (even during periods of reduced funding). This means that we can truly say that our undergraduates receive a research led education so that they leave university with knowledge of developments at the forefront of their disciplines. However HESA data shows that only 4.3% of undergraduate students receive any form of enterprise education. If one delves deeper into the data more deeply one finds that the figure is less than <2% for science students. Given that  international studies agree that good quality enterprise education increases the likelihood that students will establish and grow companies, the question has to be asked: why does the UK not invest in providing the tools to enable them to exploit their world-class education?

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16:10-16:20 An investor view of the skills required in TTOs, start-ups and spin outs

Barbara Domayne-Hayman, Entrepreneur in Residence, The Francis Crick Institute, UK


I am an entrepreneur practitioner, but am also on the investment committees of two seed investment funds, which gives me some interesting perspectives on what investors are looking for. 

Investors are looking for obvious things such as innovative science, and knowing how to protect it. Does the team have sufficient commercial skills? Have they identified the key issues? Investors also seek indicators of competence at execution and building relationships.

In a start-up/spin-out the team is absolutely critical. Investors look for clear accountabilities, complementary skills, an ability to evolve, passion, and resilience. 

What investors look for in technology transfer offices (TTOs) is industry experience with realistic views of the technology’s potential; pace and pragmatism in negotiations; and a long term view of shared success, rather than seeking a short term return for the academic institution – but is there alignment in the performance metrics?

In the rollercoaster world of start-ups, the human factors are usually the most critical for success, so we need to ensure that the teams are as well equipped as possible.

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16:20-16:30 The human-factor in building Hubble telescopes for the brain

Dr Romeo Rácz (DEng), Postdoctoral Training Fellow, The Francis Crick Institute, UK


The brain produces in 30 seconds as much data as the Hubble Space Telescope in its entire lifetime. To study this organ of incomparable complexity which ultimately drives behaviour of the individual, we at jULIEsTM Bioelectronics build high-resolution miniaturized devices which interface with the central and peripheral nervous systems. By leveraging advances in microelectronics, nanomaterials and data science jULIEs enable, firstly, unparalleled research into brain dynamics with cellular resolution; secondly, they are at the core of next-gen neuroprosthetics which aim to restore useful sight, hearing, treat debilitating brain disorders or possibly restore organ function as a whole.

jULIEs became a reality because of the rigorous work of a highly interdisciplinary expert team with skills ranging from engineering and physics to neuroscience, chemistry, genetics and data science. Given recent global interest in neuroscience, it is foreseen that so far siloed scientific fields will merge together, giving birth to new disciplines capable of synergistically studying and explaining brain function. Similarly, innovation will be needed in business models for this emerging field.

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16:30-16:40 Skills learned from participating in Oxford iGEM

2017 Oxford iGEM team


iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, runs every year and sees teams from around the world use synthetic biology to solve real world problems. The majority of these teams are formed of undergraduate students who gain invaluable experience in a wide variety of areas, including those beyond the lab bench.

Zoe C and Zoe F were members of the Oxford iGEM team for 2017 who won the prize for Best Diagnostic project for their work developing a tool to diagnose Chagas disease. The interdisciplinary team combined subject-specific skills with ones gained over the course of the project to create a well-rounded project which they presented at the competition.

The competition offers a unique opportunity to develop skills in communication, collaboration, and confidence - these are key in both academic and non-academic environments. Zoe C and Zoe F will talk about their personal development over the course of their project.

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16:40-16:50 Entrepreneurship and the importance of accelerators and incubators

Ned Wakeman, Director, Alderley Park Accelerator

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16:50-17:00 An investor view of the entrepreneurship and business skills needed for the life sciences sector to thrive

Matthew Foy, Partner, SROne, UK


Entrepreneurs have a complex and ever-changing matrix of roles they have to play, milestones they need to deliver and stakeholders they have to manage. Convincing investors that you can keep all of these balls in the air will be crucial for your financing.

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17:00-17:20 Entrepreneurship and business skills: panel discussion


Closing remarks


Drinks reception

Related events

Future skills for the life sciences The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK
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