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Who's Going to Develop our Next Medicines?

Join Dr Philip Wright, Director of Science at the Posted on: 06 May 04
Who's Going to Develop our Next Medicines?


Join Dr Philip Wright, Director of Science at the ABPI live online to find out.
Medicines wants to know:
"Why has there been a decline in interest in science, maths and technology?" 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Well there's not really any single explanation about why there's been a decline what we're most concerned about actually are chemistry courses and attracting young people to take part. In part because somehow we're missing the excitement of practical science that's the thing that attracted me to science. In chemistry we're seeing a situation where over 70% of GCSE chemistry classes are taken by teachers without a chemistry degree. Which is a bit worrying. Somehow we have to attract students to do chemistry degrees and then some of those graduates need to teaching. 

Sasha wants to know:
Does the ABPI offer courses for students? Or, is work experience available for people wanting to get into the industry? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
The ABPI its self doesn't offer courses, but many of our members will take work placement students at secondary school as well as in Universities. There is around 4-500 what we call "industrial trainees" in our companies every year. Generally students take a three, six or twelve month placement. Students are paid full wage and get involved fully in research. These opportunities are very popular and you will be put through a full interview process. If you want more information about careers you could visit our website 
Paul would like to ask:
How much are the government putting into science, maths and technology courses? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Generally the UK is investing more in science research but recently with teaching we've seen a decline in the funding factor that the funding councils allocate to teaching grants. That means it's easier for universities to expand non-laboratory courses then to invest in science. Only last week we saw the announcement by Swansea university to close it's chemistry undergraduate course. Somehow, the government must invest to support Science courses in the short to medium term. 
Jamie wants to know:
Why do you think students these days are less interested in taking science subjects?  
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Hi Jamie. That's a good question. I think in part it's because science courses are not an easy option and for some reason science is not engaging pupils in secondary school. 
Todd wants to know:
Where do you see medical research heading in the next ten years if we do not encourage more interest amongst students in the sciences? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Todd, in the short term I don't think things will change significantly in the UK. In fact, last year we saw record investment in pharmaceutical R & D when it reached 3.5 Billion pounds. However, increasingly companies are recruiting from overseas. That's not surprising as this is a global business. But unless we can get students to continue to take science courses we won't have the pool of expertise, which the industry needs. 
Tim wants to know:
In your opinion how can school make science classes more exiting to encourage students to further their studies in these subjects?  
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Hi Tim. It's not easy to change things over night and I do hear some very good examples of really good teachers and schools. But somehow we need to spread this good practice more widely and ensure they have the facilities and training to make science exciting. We also need to attract chemistry graduates in particular into teaching. The best part of chemistry classes to me was getting my hands dirty, creating explosions and havoc. Science should be fun! 

Peter has a question:
Studying for a science-based career can take years. As I'm already 24 are there any courses I can take that would propel me into the industry?  
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Peter, that's a tricky one. You can get in on the bottom rung and work your way through many companies will also support training and development. What I suggest you do is have a look at a number of the large company websites to see what opportunities there are. You should also try contacting their human resources departments who should be able to provide some further pointers. 

Grant wants to know:
Hi Philip, I'm 16 and wondering if it's possible to study abroad and get a qualification in a science based subjects that will still be recognised in the UK? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Hello Grant. There shouldn't be any problem about studying abroad. Companies in the UK recruit from overseas as well. They are fully familiar with overseas qualifications. What you should do is ensure the courses you take provide the foundation you need in the industry. So, for example, if you are doing a degree in pharmaceutical sciences then you need to ensure you have a good background of science - that is biology, chemistry, and possibly physics - that will allow you to study a good degree at university. 
Oliver wants to know:
Although you mention that Britain has helped develop over a quarter of the top 100 medicines, do you think that the public are aware of this? Surely if we were made more aware, students would be more encouraged to study in these subjects? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Oliver, yes you're right. I don't think the public know how successful the UK's been at developing new medicines. We have a great history both in academic research as well as in pharmaceutical companies of developing new medicines. Many of our companies do send their young researchers into local schools, but they can't reach everyone. We certainly try to communicate this success but of course as with everything it will be nice to do more. I think that would help in getting more students interested in science. 
Mark wants to know:
My science teachers at school were really boring, apart from the Biology one, is there enough incentive for scientists to go into teaching? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Mark, I think we do need to somehow encourage government to attract more science teachers. I suspect your biology teacher had a biology degree. That may not have been the case for your other science teachers. I hope you have not been put off taking science other then biology. Even for a biologist a good grounding in chemistry and mathematics is essential. 
Jessica would like to ask:
How are schools expected to teach science in an exciting way when so many have dire lab facilities? 
Dr Philip Wright said: 
Hi Jessica, I think it's almost impossible. Government has said they will spend more on science classrooms. But I think more still needs to be done. Science is after all about extending the boundaries of knowledge - how can you do that in old laboratories? 
Anna wants to know:
My kids say that maths and science are their least favourite lessons at school. Is there anything that parents can do to help? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Anna, one idea maybe to contact groups like the British Association for the Advancement of Science. They have local clubs and networks, which can bring science to life. Hopefully that will interest them in what science is really about. 
Josh wants to know:
Do you think that the profession will become better paid due to the shortage? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Josh, first of all, generally scientists in the pharmaceutical industry are very competitively paid. That's very important as companies compete globally for the best talent. It's also worth remembering that some research scientists start their own companies and can make a lot of money when they sell them. What worries me more is attracting the science teachers of tomorrow. Government has started making an impact on this, but more needs to be done. 
Ben wants to know:
Why is the US the best at developing medicines? 
Dr Philip Wright said: 
Ben, actually the UK is best! We have developed more innovative medicines per pound spent then the US or any other country in the world. 
Cassie wants to know:
Hi Philip, which sciences did you study at university and what did you do before you became Director of Science at the ABPI? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Cassie, at A level I studied Biology, Physical Sciences, and Mathematics. But I came into the industry through an unusual route. I actually took Marine Biology at University then was involved in Molecular Biology research. After carrying out some research I then got involved in public policy and strategy. Before joining the ABPI I was Director of Scientific and Educational Affairs at Glaxo Wellcome. 
Lisa would like to ask:
It seems to me that people take the products of scientific research and engineering for granted these days – could this be why there is a decline in interest in these subjects? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Lisa yes I think your right. Everywhere around our homes are advances in Science and Technology. Especially in medicines. We take for granted many of the medical breakthroughs over the last ten, twenty, or even thirty years. These have had a significant impact on many people's lives. For example, there are many medicines for asthma, which allow people to live actively and normally. That wouldn't have been the case thirty years ago. 
Sam wants to know:
Which Universities have the best reputation for science and maths based courses? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Sam I think most people know the leading universities. Degrees from Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College are well regarded. But there are many other Universities who also have good courses and will provide a good foundation for the future. I suggest you look at the actual courses on offer before deciding where to go. 
Polly is asking:
What is the best medicine the UK has recently developed? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
Polly, WOW that's a difficult question to answer. The one that I think has perhaps had the greatest impact was AZT, the first treatment available for HIV/AIDS. Today, if you are infected with AIDS it is no longer the death sentence it was. This and the medicines that followed have transformed the treatment of this disease. However, I think we are living in a very exciting time, over the next twenty years the advance in medical science will be even more profound. We should begin to see the fruits of the genetic and proteomic revolutions. 
Jack wants to know:
Hi Philip, are there any awards/incentives to encourage new young scientists in Britain? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Jack, there are a few awards around. Most are aimed at young research students and at young post-doctoral researchers. But there are not very many, perhaps this is an area we should look at to see if we could do more. 
Julie wants to know:
How are Pharmaceutical companies playing a role in attracting bright students into science? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Julie, companies are working in a number of ways. First, they do try to work in local schools; they also host quite a few placement opportunities for bright pupils. Many companies produce materials and information for schools. The ABPI also has a schools website that has now been approved as appropriate online curriculum materials. 
Gemma wants to know:
I am doing maths, physics and chemistry A-levels, I enjoy the subjects but am not sure what career I want to do and thus what I want to do at university – are there any general scientific degrees or do you have to specialise?  
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Gemma, there are many general science degrees I would suggest you take a single science degree such as chemistry. During your course you should be able to find out what interests you most and specialise afterwards perhaps taking a higher degree such as a PhD. 
Raj wants to know:
What will happen if we do not produce more scientists within this country? 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Raj, I think two things will happen. First companies in the UK will recruit more from overseas. Second I think the UK will become a less attractive place in which to invest. We will become less innovative and produce fewer medicines out of the UK research base. I don't believe this will necessarily happen if we can attract young pupils into science especially chemistry. 
Dr Philip Wright said:
 Many thanks for all your questions I hope I've answered as many as possible. If you do want any further information try looking at or on our main website at

Dr Philip Wright

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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