Closing the STEM Skills Gap

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Written evidence submitted by Alex Sossick on behalf of BioimagingUK

  • BioImagingUK is an organic organization of UK scientists that develop, use, or administer imaging solutions for life sciences research. Membership of BioImagingUK is predominately life sciences academia, but includes end users of imaging technology through to developers, physics, mathematicians, engineers and commercial companies.
  • BioImagingUK seeks to represent the views of UK scientists that use and need imaging.
  • The UK Life Sciences Light Microscopy market (not including Electron Microscopy) is valued at ~£70 million p.a. in sales for high end light microscopes and related products. The amount of research it supports is significantly higher!
  • There are a number of key skills shortages both in academia and the pharmaceutical industry pertaining to microscopy and imaging within Life Sciences. We estimate (from meetings, conferences, databases and workshops) that around one third of high end microscopists in the UK are not UK nationals.
  • BioImagingUK and the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS) work closely to support bioimaging across the board in the UK.

The STEM skills that are needed but that are in short supply or missing;

  • End User Skills
  • Support Skills
  • Developer infrastructure

End User Skills: The UK has a significant shortage of high end applied microscopy training for end users such as PhD and postdoctoral researchers, who should be exposed to a greater depth to the range of technologies and applications now available. Due to a lack of funding the only advanced applied course bringing biologists, engineers and physicist together for 10 days has stopped due to lack of funding. As another example a course open to anyone in the UK, “Image Processing for Biologists” run in Cambridge twice a year for 45 students fills within a day of registration, with a waiting list of other 50 people. CNRS in France supports the French BioImaging community by funding a bi-annual meeting MiFoBio where 350 people come together for workshops, lectures and training, with over 50 microscopes transported to the location, 20 of which are commercial and over 30 are ‘home’ built systems in laboratories. This has significant impact of the France BioImaging community. Not only does this mean that the BioImaging community in France has in general a high skill level and understanding of the possibilities of equipment but it has a direct impact on the number of products being developed through academia feeding through to commercial products.

Support Skills: There are well established core Light Microscopy facilities throughout the UK, that provide a infrastructure to support complex equipment and through this support give significant added value to capital investments in imaging equipment. At the UK Light Microscopy Facility Managers Annual Meeting, a repeated concern is that key imaging technologist on short or medium term funding with the significant possibility that if grant funding is not forthcoming, key expertise and know-how about equipment may well be lost at Universities and other research institutes across the UK. This is despite the fact that they are employed to support the instrument for all users and not just one grant. PhD Students and Post-Doctoral fellows often are on short term contracts and can’t provide the breadth of knowledge or the continuity to support critical imaging infrastructure. The result is that a piece of equipment worth £0.3 to £1 million may sit idle, or incorrectly used, and potential scientific discoveries that depend on this instrumentation are not achieved. If core facility posts are funded long term knowledge continuation and stability is much more likely. Maximisation through this continuity would increase scientific impact, integrity and excellence, ensuring funds are not wasted through poor utilisation and poor use.

Core facility staff training in many UK universities is very much overlooked, one aim through BioImagingUK and the Royal Microscopical Society (RMS) is for create networking opportunities to address this. In Germany through German Bioimaging this has been very successful. Although the RMS also runs core management courses, facility staff often do not have access to funds to attend.

Technology Development Infrastructure: Attracting physics and engineering specialists to develop new technologies within the Life Sciences market is a significant issue. Recognition and career structure within Life Sciences for people to drive the hardware technology forward is very limited. In academia, especially this means that with in Life Sciences it can be difficult to recruit and retain technologist to develop new technologies. Although there have been many cross disciplinary funding initiatives, these have often been one-offs, and follow-up funding found only in exceptional cases. More often than not, RCUK fund hypothesis driven science, whereas technology needs to be the invention, but application development is equally important. Novel applications are often better when developed for a broad range of applications, however, funding models require the applications to address a single hypothesis which is not as efficient or high impacting, as it limits the scope, and thus funding potential. This is not helped by the lack of representation of technologists on research grant awarding committees compared to classic academics.

Economic and Industrial Impact: Though there are relatively smaller companies in the UK bringing products to market, the major companies in the Advanced light microscopy market are from Germany and Japan with some large though slightly niche companies based in the USA. Though there is significant development in the UK, the commercial feedback advantage to the economy of bringing products to market is generally lost to other countries. This partly reflects the risk averse nature of filing patents through the costs involved and risks associated when jumping from academia to spin-out, or juggling both.

Summary: The UK are world leaders in the area of applied bioimaging, especially microscopy, but to maintain this we need investment in the support structure as well. There is little point spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a microscopes and other high end equipment if the infrastructure is not there to support it long term.

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