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Lessons to be learned to plug genomics skills gap

It’s an exciting time to work in genomics, and the industry is rapidly growing as new discoveries and ground breaking research pushes the boundaries of modern medicine to unprecedented heights. However if the industry is to sustain this growth, attracting appropriately skilled candidates is essential – and therein lies the biggest challenge to genomics, writes Eugene McDaid.

In less than five years’ time, the genomics industry will be staring down the barrel of a major skills shortage, impacting the growth and commercial potential of the genomics sector as well as its application in the real world. The problem is by no means isolated to the UK, and on my recent trip to Boston I found that even in a city which is home to some of the best universities in the world, there is still growing concern about how to fill future vacancies.

The current skills gap situation is before we take into account any further deficits resulting from Brexit. Life sciences companies are already concerned that availability and access to talent will be problematic once Britain leaves the EU, as the industry already relies on EU workers to bring in the necessary skills and experience they are unable to find closer to home.

One of the main areas of concern is the recruitment of data scientists. Genomics produces such large amounts of data that to draw any meaningful conclusions for further research or drug targeting, the industry needs people who can analyse the numbers and make sense of it all.

There are a couple of different approaches to this people problem; the first is apprenticeships. These are used successfully across a range of industries to give young people the skills they need to do a particular job, so for a specialised area like computational science, the apprenticeship route could be a very valid suggestion.

In fact, the wheels for a data science apprenticeship are already in motion. The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the Anglia Ruskin University recently announced funding for a degree apprenticeship programme to plug the skills gap in the big data sector, which is estimated to be growing by 56,000 jobs a year. Launching in September 2018, the course will provide inhouse training to give candidates the skills they need to excel in the genomics industry.

In principle, a data or computational scientist apprenticeship is just what the doctor ordered, but to get onto the scheme, apprentices will need relevant A-levels or level 3 equivalent qualifications. So if we are to make any real headway into increasing the number of data scientists, we also need to increase the number of people studying science beyond GCSE and this requires a much earlier intervention.

Science GSCEs and A-levels haven’t changed massively over the years, and unfortunately the curriculum is not based on the kind of science that really goes on in the field today. Where is the link between science and computer lessons, if that’s how so much of today’s scientific research is modelled and analysed? We need to be equipping future scientists with the skills they will use, and enthusing them with knowledge about the exciting discoveries being made today. We need genomics to be a career choice from a much earlier age.

As well as a more relevant science curriculum, other areas of schooling can also support young people’s genomics career development – for example, through computer programming studies and more relevant maths lessons, including statistics, data analysis and probabilities. These are all skills that the genomics industry is crying out for.

If the Government is really serious about the UK excelling in STEM industries, the necessary foundations must be laid for the future, and that means educating children in relevant science skills now, enthusing them with passion and promoting science and genomics as careers.

It’s not just genomics where big data skills are needed either. The financial, oil and gas, marketing and gambling industries all rely on the analysis of data, so drawing on candidates from these industries to plug the gaps in genomics will only create a shortfall elsewhere. Its clear to see that investment in better ‘big data’ education will benefit the many, not just the few.

If the UK Genomics industry is to continue to shine on the global stage, we need to invest in our future stars now before the talent pool dries up.

If you are interested in learning about a career in genomics, get in touch with us today.

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29th November

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