AstraZeneca's Job Cuts Hit UK Skills

Last Updated Mar 3, 2010 5:44 PM EST

Pharmaceutical business AstraZeneca's announcement that it will close its R&D operation at Charnwood in Leicestershire by 2011 not only takes some 1,200 highly-skilled jobs out of the local economy. It raises a bigger question as to where the UK skilled jobs are in future.

AstraZeneca uses the research facility, based near Loughborough, for drug development work, which will now be moved to the company's Cheshire base, Alderley Park. It also looks set to close similar, smaller bases in Cambridge and near Bristol as part of a longer-term restructuring plan which has seen 8,000 jobs go worldwide this year with a further 3,500 to come.

AZ's not the first to cut its drug development costs worldwide -- Pfizer's cut R&D jobs and GlaxoSmithKline's cost-cutting target is likely to mean job losses among UK R&D professionals. The rationalisation trend -- cutting jobs and 'peripheral' costs to get a business back to its core, money-making activities -- is reminiscent of the aggressive re-engineering that took place post-1990s recession.

What's worrisome about this is that individual companies emerged from the 1990s re-engineering spate to find they'd pared back too far -- and that some skills (specialist engineering, for example) were pretty thin on the ground. Arguably, this also hastened the UK's shift to a 'service economy' -- and influenced what students focused on at university.

Science and Innovation minister Lord Drayson has argued that AstraZeneca's decision to put its main activities under one roof -- Alderley Park -- is a sign that the UK remains a top choice for big pharma investment. And local government representatives are working with the company to find a way of softening the blow for Leicestershire.

But it's a reminder of how significant inward investor decisions can be for the UK's economy as a whole. Without big pharma to offer internships and graduate jobs, will British science grads look elsewhere for work? One company's decision won't tip the scales, of course, but the trend away from drug discovery is dispiriting.

There is one silver lining for brave entrepreneurs in the sector. Big pharma's loss could be the smaller start-up's gain. Given the amount of time and trialling behind drug development, though, any entrepreneurs in this sector will need serious backers, both from the private and public sectors.

Addition: After writing this, I noticed a response to a report by none other than the Science for Careers Expert Group. This group's aim is to "better communicate the value of science skills in the workplace and therefore the opportunities that are available to those who study science... ", to build partnerships with business and to generally get more of the workforce into science-based industries. Assuming someone is hiring.