GlaxoSmithKline is cutting the jobs of hundreds of scientists as it restructures its drug research and development operations

GlaxoSmithKline is cutting the jobs of hundreds of scientists as it restructures its drug R&D operations.

The job cuts represent around 2 per cent of the company’s 17,000 global R&D workforce, a GSK spokeswoman told Chemistry World, equating to around 350 jobs lost. The redundancies are widely reported to be from three sites in the US - Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, and Upper Providence and Upper Merion in Pennsylvania - plus Harlow in the UK and Verona in Italy. GSK declined to confirm the specific sites involved, except to say the sites involved are in the UK, US and continental Europe.

’We continue to reshape our R&D operations to take advantage of new scientific opportunities and improve GSK’s productivity. Regrettably some job reductions are necessary and we will do everything we can to support those employees who are affected,’ the company said in a statement.

’These changes are part of GSK’s longer term strategy to ensure we invest in key areas of future growth and evolve our business to compete effectively in what is a rapidly changing and challenging environment for pharmaceutical companies,’ the spokeswoman added.

The cuts are just the latest to hit chemists in the pharmaceutical industry. In 2007, Anglo-Swedish dug firm AstraZeneca cut 7600 jobs - 11 per cent of its workforce - 700 of which were in R&D. Such big cuts aren’t entirely surprising, says Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) spokesman Richard Ley, given the growing expense of drug R&D and increasing global competition for research sites.

’At one time there were a limited number of places in the world you could carry out R&D,’ says Ley. ’This is no longer the case - countries like China, India and Singapore now offer well qualified scientists, and often a more welcoming regulatory environment.’

Pharmaceutical industry consultant William Bains of Rufus Scientific was also unsurprised by the announcement - not least because rumours that GSK would make cuts at big plants have been circulating for a while. In addition, the slowing global economy doesn’t encourage investment into research, he adds. ’In this market, people tend not to think of long-term, visionary products - they want projects that will deliver on a one to two year basis.’ 

As well the general market difficulties facing all pharmaceutical firms, GSK is currently suffering from the loss of sales of blockbuster diabetes drug Avandia. Sales of the drug fell to ?1.2 billion in 2007 - 26 per cent below 2006 sales - after analysis of the drugs safety data linked it with increased risk of heart attack. Sales continue to slide, falling 56 per cent to ?191 million in the first quarter of 2008.

Before the cuts were announced, GSK’s head of drug discovery Patrick Vallance told a conference on 9 June that research teams will be divided into smaller, focussed groups that would concentrate on a single disease area. The restructure is intended to stimulate innovation - and such groups would be rewarded based on the value they create for the company, with ’disincentives’ for destroying value.

Despite the cuts, both Ley and Bains say there is still strong demand in the UK for good chemists - although both stress the need to be innovative and creative in their thinking and approach to the job. ’There are still huge opportunities for organic and inorganic chemists across the economy, and will be for some time,’ said Bains. ’But you can no longer join a pharmaceutical company straight from a PhD and expect to be there for the next 40 years - or even to hop between pharmaceutical companies. Chemists will have to be creative about finding jobs, both in terms of the industry and geography.’

James Mitchell Crow

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