By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Leading British scientists called on the government on Wednesday to act now to save the nation's pharmaceutical industry from being swallowed up in a wave of consolidation driven by overseas rivals.
In a statement prompted by a planned $100 billion takeover of Britain's AstraZeneca by rival U.S. drugmaker Pfizer, leaders in pharmacology, biology, chemistry and biochemistry said the entire UK life sciences sector risked losing its lead.
"The UK has been a world leader in medicines research and development, but recent closures and restructuring put this position under threat," they said.
AstraZeneca, Britain's second-biggest drugmaker behind GlaxoSmithKline, is an important part of the sector and employs nearly 7,000 staff in the country.
Pfizer's reputation in Britain was hurt after it announced plans in 2011 to shut a major drug research site in Sandwich, southern England, where Viagra was invented, with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs.
"Drug discovery is changing everywhere," the scientists said. "Large pharma businesses are consolidating and downsizing, with much of early-stage research coming from an innovation ecosystem of academia and SMEs (small and medium enterprises)."
The statement was issued by Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, Jonathan Bruun, chief executive of the British Pharmacological Society, Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, and Kate Baillie, chief executive of the Biochemical Society.
British lawmakers say they intend to investigate Pfizer's proposed takeover to try to ensure jobs and scientific research are protected.
The scientists said Britain could "stay at the cutting edge and reap the economic rewards if we act now, while the sector remains strong, to support the transition to the new drug discovery model".
They called on Prime Minister David Cameron's coalition government to lead the way by setting up a "Pharmaceutical Council" bringing together medical charities, funding bodies, businesses, academics, the National Health Service and academic societies to keep Britain at the forefront of drug discovery.
They gave the analogy of the car industry in Britain, which when it faced similar challenges was given a lease of life by the creation of a government-sponsored Automotive Council which helped re-invigorate the sector.
"And now a new vehicle rolls off a UK production line every 20 seconds," the scientists said.
The government has so far adopted a neutral stance on Pfizer's approach, with finance minister George Osborne saying any deal between the two firms would be a commercial matter.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)