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Report to bioscience funder recommends action on niche areas of expertise

15 October 2009

An independent panel has today (15 October) made a series of recommendations to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) on concerns over potential shortages in strategically important and vulnerable niche areas of research expertise. The report, from the BBSRC Skills and Careers Strategy Panel, has identified potential risks in niche skills within the broad areas of Whole Animal Physiology; Industrial Biotechnologies; Plant and Agricultural sciences; and Systematics and Taxonomy. The panel recommends action in these areas by BBSRC.

The UK’s bioscience research is world-leading in a range of research areas, and the UK possesses a vibrant and dynamic research community spanning the university sector, public and charitable research institutes and commercial R&D. The report to BBSRC seeks to ensure that where there are niche areas of expertise vital to the UK’s research efforts these are not overlooked, particularly where there may be fewer employment opportunities or a lower profile amongst students.

The report follows a consultation run by BBSRC and the Biosciences Federation (which recently joined with the Institute of Biology to form the Society of Biology) on strategically important and vulnerable capabilities in UK bioscience. The focus of the consultation was on ‘niche skills’ – areas of expertise where the number of experts needed may be relatively small, but where they provide a vital contribution to the UK’s ongoing research expertise in a particular area. Responses to the consultation were received from individuals and professional bodies, who were asked to provide not just evidence of vulnerability in the availability of particular expertise, but explain why it is strategically important for the UK to retain it, and what is causing the difficulty.

Professor Ottoline Leyser, BBSRC Bioscience Skills and Careers Strategy Panel chair said: “Our role is to ensure that BBSRC gets the best information and advice to ensure that the high quality and impressive profile of the UK’s biosciences community is maintained and strengthened into the future. We have heard many anecdotal reports of skills shortages but in order to advise BBSRC on priorities for action we had to have a solid evidence base from which to work. The niche research skills within the four broad areas of concern that we have identified are crucial for UK bioscience because these areas underpin so many of the important scientific, social and economic impacts we see arising from bioscience research.”

Dr Celia Caulcott, BBSRC Director of Innovation and Skills said: “The UK’s world-class bioscience and its uptake by research users in the wider economy require creative and high-calibre individuals in a wide range of areas. Particularly when the number of individuals needed with specific expertise may be quite small, it can be essential that we retain that expertise as current specialists retire, for example. We are already working to support skills development and capacity building in the areas the report has identified and this provides welcome evidence to show that we are targeting our activities in the right areas.”

BBSRC is involved in several actions to invest in the skills areas mentioned in the recommendations. For example, BBSRC funds the Integrative Mammalian Biology initiative jointly with the Medical Research Council (MRC), Wellcome Trust and several industrial partners – this encourages skills development in the animal physiology area. In the industrial biotechnologies area BBSRC has prioritised funding for postgraduate studentships in Bioprocessing, as well as providing funding for research and training through several relevant schemes such as Industrial Impact Fellowships and the Industry Interchange programme.

The security of future food supplies will rely on excellent plant science and agricultural research and BBSRC is currently embarking on a programme to ensure the supply of trained researchers in these areas. BBSRC is also involved in a major review of Systematics and Taxonomy in research, which is being led by the Natural Environment Research Council.

Dr Caulcott continued: “We will review the report before pursuing any new avenues and would welcome feedback from the community on the recommendations. It is vital that we make best use of limited public resources and so we will carefully consider how to take this forward.

“We are very grateful to all those who have taken time and effort to respond to the consultation. This has been a very valuable exercise and will help ensure the UK remains at the forefront of global bioscience research.”

It is hoped that the report will be of interest to universities and other organisations involved in research training, as well as students, in order to help inform decisions about where to specialise. The report is also important for the wider UK research base - in particular, research organisations whose work relies on the employment of staff with niche expertise. It is vital that these research organisations plan ahead as existing staff reach retirement, or if they are planning to expand their work in a particular area. The report shows that, with niche areas of expertise, research organisations cannot rely on being able to pick up a new expert off-the-shelf; however there are many things which an organisation can do to help strengthen the supply of the skills it needs. The responses to the consultation demonstrate that many research organisations are being proactive in this regard, and the report is intended to share this good practice.

To see a copy of the final report, visit:

ENDS

About the Society of Biology

The Society of Biology is a single unified voice for biology: advising Government and influencing policy; advancing education and professional development; supporting our members, and engaging and encouraging public interest in the life sciences. The Society of Biology is a charity, created by the unification of the Biosciences Federation and the Institute of Biology, and is building on the heritage and reputation of these two organisations to champion the study and development of biology, and provide expert guidance and opinion. The Society represents a diverse membership of over 80,000 - including students, practising scientists and interested non-professionals - as individuals, or through learned societies and other organisations. www.societyofbiology.org

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

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