Industrial research and development in the chemical sciences has seen significant changes in the UK.


This is especially apparent within the life sciences sector which has witnessed a major shift from large pharma as the dominant players to a community that increasingly involves SMEs, contract research organisations and the NHS.

This emerging research ecosystem requires extensive links and networks between disparate organisations and requires researchers to be skilled at navigating their way through a complex and rapidly-changing environment.

“A frame-shift is required in order to realise the latent capacity of small businesses”

Against this backdrop, the demand for industrial placements as an invaluable work-based learning experience is only going to increase and this represents a significant challenge. The solution lies in the SME sector where much of the future growth and employment opportunities will reside.

The capacity for large companies to host placements has diminished, particularly in the pharma sector (traditionally the major contributor to industrial placements) where, according to the biennial ABPI survey, the total number of placements hosted by UK-based pharma companies has halved in 4 years, from 530 in 2007 to 268 in 2011.

However, aside from the relatively small numbers of SMEs already hosting industrial placements, a frame-shift is required in order to realise the latent capacity of small businesses. This challenge cannot be overstated – many SMEs view industrial placements as an unaffordable expense with little return or as an unwelcome distraction. Others might recognise the potential value but are hesitant about committing to a scheme where they have no previous experience.   

Equally, universities can find identifying and building relationships with SMEs challenging. Some placement officers also raised concerns about whether SMEs can offer high quality placements and students may also be reluctant to apply to unknown small companies.

In order to address this, we’ve initiated a Royal Society of Chemistry project to provide grants to SMEs to fully-fund one-year undergraduate chemistry industrial placements. The pilot phase of the project was launched at the start of 2014 in partnership with Cogent who are responsible for delivering the UK Government-funded Life Sciences Placements Service.

Under the scheme, successful SMEs will not only receive a grant to cover all the costs of a placement for 2014/15 but will also have the opportunity to obtain funding to cover 50% of costs for a subsequent placement in 2015/16.

The selection criteria are focused on ensuring that the quality of the student experience is as high as possible, including opportunities for independent research, and clearly-identified learning outcomes. Ten SME recipients have been selected for the 2014 scheme. They cover a broad range of sectors, from life sciences and pharmaceuticals through to colloids, inks and specialty chemicals.

“By having access to students whilst they are still undergraduates we are essentially getting a preview of the best talent our universities are delivering” Phil Abbott, Reach

One of the companies hosting a student is Reach Separations who provide purification and chromatographic services. Phil Abbott, Reach’s Separation Technical director spoke about the benefits: “When I was working at a larger pharmaceutical company I really saw the benefit in placement students, and personally found a great deal of satisfaction helping them to develop. We are delighted to have the opportunity to host one here in our smaller but growing business. More importantly though, are the longer term benefits.”

“By having access to students whilst they are still undergraduates we are essentially getting a preview of the best talent our universities are delivering. Recruiting the right people is difficult and expensive. By working with sandwich placement students we get to ‘interview’ them for a year whilst they work with us and have confidence that if they do join us after graduation, that they will already be working the ‘Reach’ way.”

To give a sense of the demand for these placements, one of the advertised positions has already received interest from 115 students from 32 different universities. 

At the Royal Society of Chemistry, we firmly believe this scheme will provide students with valuable, up-to-date research experience as well as an opportunity to develop key transferable skills. We will track the success of the programme as it unfolds over the next year, both in terms of the student experience and the value to the host organisation. 

Other indicators of success will be if other organisations, for example funding bodies and other learned societies, also fund placements and, of course, that SMEs continue to fund the placements themselves in future year therefore building capacity.

We also recently launched the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Enterprise Plus, a service that provides micro, small and medium sized companies with vital information on funding opportunities and scientific developments as well as access to business expertise and relevant networks.

As the world’s leading chemistry community, it’s our job to help scientists develop the skills they need. We believe with the right support, small businesses can help universities achieve this. 

Clare Wilson is Small Companies Programme Manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry

Quality placements: NCUB have already taken part in several dissemination events with HE bodies across the UK in order to share initial findings and receive feedback and contributions from those that have valuable experience in placement provision. This ongoing project continues to find evidence about the existing system of placements and what could be done to improve the impact of placements in future. Find out more about the NCUB Quality Placements intiative 

Other posts that may interest you: 

The impact of work experiences on HE student outcomes

Becoming a Web Developer: The Placement Year Student Perspective

Students Want Greater Access to Work Experience and Industry Content

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