Antibiotic (antibacterial) resistance is a serious global problem and the need for new treatments is urgent. The current antibiotic discovery model is not delivering new agents at a rate that is sufficient to combat present levels of antibiotic resistance. This has led to fears of the arrival of a 'post-antibiotic era'. Scientific difficulties, an unfavourable regulatory climate, multiple company mergers and the low financial returns associated with antibiotic drug development have led to the withdrawal of many pharmaceutical companies from the field. The regulatory climate has now begun to improve, but major scientific hurdles still impede the discovery and development of novel antibacterial agents. To facilitate discovery activities there must be increased understanding of the scientific problems experienced by pharmaceutical companies. This must be coupled with addressing the current antibiotic resistance crisis so that compounds and ultimately drugs are delivered to treat the most urgent clinical challenges. By understanding the causes of the failures and successes of the pharmaceutical industry's research history, duplication of discovery programmes will be reduced, increasing the productivity of the antibiotic drug discovery pipeline by academia and small companies. The most important scientific issues to address are getting molecules into the Gram-negative bacterial cell and avoiding their efflux. Hence screening programmes should focus their efforts on whole bacterial cells rather than cell-free systems. Despite falling out of favour with pharmaceutical companies, natural product research still holds promise for providing new molecules as a basis for discovery.