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11 March 2024

Bioeconomy Week Scotland blog: Sarah Hunt

SDS Sector Manager for Life Sciences, Sarah Hunt, highlights and celebrates the achievements of the sector and its importance to Scotland as a whole.

Life and Chemical Sciences continues to be a sector of key importance for the growth of the Scottish economy.

This week marks Bioeconomy Week Scotland, a chance to highlight and celebrate the achievements of the sector and its importance to Scotland as a whole. 

Most often when out and about advocating for the sector with groups who aren’t a part of it, the most common question I get is, ‘but what is life and chemical sciences?’  And my answer, Life and Chemical Sciences ranges from R&D and manufacturing of pharmaceutical drugs; to the creation of medical technologies to aide the prevention, diagnosis, monitoring and treatment within the health sector; or to making use of natural resource or waste products from other sectors like the whisky sector and creating green alternative to fossil fuels.  And that’s only a snapshot of three areas of the sector, there is so much more to it:  

Sarah Hunt

Life Sciences:  

  • MedTech 
  • Digital Health 
  • Stem cell and regenerative 
  • Pharmaceuatical, Pharmaceutical services and Contract Research 
  • Advanced Therapies  
  • Bioinformatics and Health Informatics 
  • Agritech, Aquaculture and Animal Health  
  • Professional Services 
  • Supply chain  
  • Non-commercial Organisations 

Chemical Sciences 

  • Commodity 
  • Speciality  
  • Consumer  
  • Industrial Biotechnology  
  • Materials  

The sector represents one percent of Scottish employment, just over 27,000 people, and punches well above its weight with productivity levels of four times the Scottish average. 

Scotland’s strengths in Industrial Biotechnology are internationally recognised – For example, Mialgae, based in Edinburgh, aim is to improve the livestock feed industry by replacing environmentally damaging products with natural solutions by using waste products – and that’s before you even get on to Pharmaceutical Services, Digital Health, Medical Devices, Precision Medicine, and Animal Health, Aquaculture, and Agritech. 


In demand 


I came into this role with a background in economics not science. At school, I struggled to get my head around chemistry, biology, and human biology.  I even failed my higher human biology prelim (shh don’t tell anyone).    

Fast forward to 2024 and it’s safe to say I’ve done a full 180, working closely with industry to ensure the sector grows, thrives and contributes – workforce is of course key to that. 

The sector benefits from a globally recognised and highly skilled workforce, with current demand for individuals with skills and experience in area such as quality control and assurance, regulatory; lab technicians, process manufacturing (upstream processing i.e. the raw materials and downstream processing i.e. the processing the output materials).  Skills are also required in non-scientific roles too; commercial project management, business development as well as those with digital skills, data scientists, data modelling and work with AI and prediction are all areas of huge demand. 

Getting young people excited about the sector, to support them to see the huge opportunities it offers, is key. 

Diversity has been a real winner for the sector when it comes to recruitment. Routes into the work have widened, with employers making real efforts to reach as wide a range of candidates as possible 

Whilst it is imperative to have the scientific and technical understanding for many roles - there’s no chance I’d be asked to gown up and work in a lab - industry are increasingly recruiting individuals with multidisciplinary skills sets, with metaskills and the appetite to learn to work in the broad range of occupations available in the sector. 


Starting out 


Getting into life and chemical sciences can start in school, alongside highers, with a Foundation Apprenticeship in Scientific Technologies.  

You only have to look at the likes of Charles River Laboratories – to see how Modern Apprentices are supporting industry to recruit new entrants and upskill their existing workforce. 

In my role, I have the pleasure of working with a wide range of people: 

  • From young people starting out on their career completing a Modern Apprenticeship 
  • to the colleges and universities preparing the next generation of talent for employment within the sector.  The Life and Chemical Sciences Graduate Employabilty Masterclass, run by SULSA, is a fantastic way for students to gain an understanding of the broad range of opportunities available to them and make real life connections with industry 
  • to stakeholders across Scotland and the wider UK providing strategic direction, insight and lobbying for the sector.  

Celebrating Bioeconomy Week


One of these key stakeholders is IBioIC who fosters innovation, collaboration, and skills development to support sustainable economic growth within Scotland – and Bioeconomy Scotland Week is great showcase for the work they’re doing day in and day out.   

SDS and IBioIC have worked in partnership for many years to support the bioeconomy in Scotland.  IBioIC are a key member of the Life and Chemical Sciences Skills Group run by Skills Development Scotland, representing the employer voice for Industrial Biotechnology within the skills landscape.  In addition, IBioIC delivers a recognised skills programme encompassing HND, MsC and PhD qualifications.  

The 10th Annual IBioIC Conference, the real centre piece of the week, will be another opportunity to engage directly with industry, academia and wider stakeholders to ensure the skills system is meeting the current and future needs of Scotland’s growing industrial biotechnology, and wider Life Sciences industry. 

 I hope to make new connections as well as catching up familiar faces, and to further my learning of Scotland’s amazing Life and Chemical Sciences sector.  If you see me there, I’d love for you to come and say hello and teach me something new about the bioeconomy in Scotland.