Industry has joined forces with the EPSRC to improve the UK's research funding formula. Emma Davies finds out more

Industry has joined forces with the EPSRC to improve the UK’s research funding formula. Emma Davies finds out more

Organic chemistry not only works creative wonders in the lab, it has brought together three fierce rivals - GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Pfizer and AstraZeneca - to create a joint UK PhD scheme that breaks the mould. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the key fund provider for the scheme, which is called the EPSRC-Pharma Synthesis Network.

Inspiration for the network came from the 2003 EPSRC international review of chemistry led by US scientist George Whitesides and coordinated by the RSC. ’Industry took a few messages from the review,’ says David Hollinshead, science policy director at AstraZeneca and a founder of the new initiative. ’For example, we were told that UK research is beginning to lose competitiveness and that one of the reasons for this is that the funding formula is restrictive.’ 

So GSK, Pfizer and AZ got together to compare notes and to identify concerns. ’We wanted to see how our industry could help the UK environment to continue to be successful. We got together various bits of data on what we did as individual companies in support of UK R&D in organic synthesis and took them to the EPSRC to try to influence it to do something alongside us to help,’ recalls Hollinshead. The EPRSC was delighted to see such an industrial collaboration - the first of its kind - and came on board immediately. ’The scheme supports science which is of general interest to all three companies - everything is at the pre-competitive level,’ says Hollinshead. 

Kevin Booker-Milburn from Bristol University has been involved in the network from the start and has a PhD student on the scheme. ’Most organic chemists have always had great relationships with industry but this is the icing on the cake - the first time that academics and industrialists have come together with this level of focus. It’s quite visionary I think.’

Training and learning 

The network’s first organic chemistry students started in October 2007 and this October a further 15 will join. The network has a call out for academic project proposals for PhD students starting in October 2009 and the EPSRC will announce in December 2008 which academics have been successful. Hollinshead advises interested students to get in touch with academics as soon as the announcement has been made. 

The network provides PhD funding for four years. ’The extra year means that students are going to be more experienced, more focused and more aware of opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry. It works for everyone - industry, academia, and the students,’ says Booker-Milburn. 

Student training and personal development are key to the PhD scheme. The PhD students can spend between three and six months in industry, ideally two three-month sessions in different company sectors such as drug discovery or process development.  

’We in industry recognise that there are some academic groups that we depend on very heavily for recruitment because they provide the right kind of training environment on top of the research. It’s usually the larger groups where the students themselves are talking to one another all the time, bringing in their own problems and testing one another,’ says Hollinshead.  

So the network’s PhD students regularly give presentations. They present and discuss their work at an annual network meeting involving all of the academics and industrialists. The next meeting is hosted by Pfizer and will take place in November. ’In the first year, students and academics have given us the message that they want a bit of space to get their research started,’ says Hollinshead. ’But by year three, the network meeting will become far more important in facilitating an exchange of information,’ he adds. 

Once the scheme reaches its third year, Booker-Milburn expects to see ’the absolute stars rising to the top within the cohort of students’. The three companies will have seen the students in their formative years. ’It’s like a very long job interview,’ he says. 

’What we’re doing is adding to a talent pool,’ says Hollinshead. ’This programme differentiates the students because their experiences are so different. I’m really passionate about this. I think if we can get this right, this programme will distinguish the UK.’

Emma Davies is a freelance writer based in Bishop’s Stortford, UK.

Further Reading

The pharmasynth website below includes a section where academics and industry pose intellectual challenges for students to solve

Information on the current call for project proposals can be found on the EPSRC website below