Improving STEM education will improve our industry

Greg Kueterman explores the three million job vacancies in the US in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math and questions how we can encourage more young people to pursue such careers.

We’re in the business of discovering new and better treatments for people around the world, so our research and development output receives a lot of scrutiny from investors and media alike – and, in many ways, rightly so. With diabetes continuing to spiral out of control, cancer rates still far too high, and Alzheimer’s disease an emerging public health crisis, our work has never been more important.

But our output – in other words, the number of new medicines that break through our industry’s collective pipeline – is in many ways the result of our environment (both individually and collectively). Do we have the right people in place? Do their backgrounds allow for diverse thinking? And does our educational system appropriately encourage young people to bravely dive into science-based careers?

At a recent conference on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) in Washington, D.C., there was plenty of rationale and analysis about why the U.S. has fallen behind so many other countries. Among the many reasons debated: women are far less inclined than men to enter a STEM-related career, a belief that could be linked to everything from early-childhood stereotypes to conversations with teachers and other mentors during formative educational years.

“…women are far less inclined than men to enter a STEM-related career…”

Take the story of Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to enter outer space. Jemison, who spoke at the Washington, D.C. summit hosted by U.S. trade organization PhRMA and U.S. News & World Report, told a vivid story from her childhood that spoke volumes. Recalling one of her first days in school as a small child, Jemison said the teacher asked all the children what they wanted to be when they became adults. Many of the children gave typical responses: fireman, policeman, and teacher were popular answers.

When Jemison was asked the question, she replied, “I want to be an astronaut!” The teacher looked at her, smiled, and replied, “Don’t you mean nurse?”

Thankfully, Jemison didn’t allow her teacher’s doubts to sway her – our world would have missed out on one great scientist. And while it’s only one example, you have to wonder how many other similar examples are out there.

More than half of college entrants in the U.S. are women, but they make up only 18 percent of STEM students. The U.S. was once a leader in STEM education, but now ranks 20th in proportion of degrees awarded in science and math, behind countries such as China and Japan. Meanwhile the World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. 52nd in quality of math and science education. Math, in particular, has become a problem – with American 15-year-olds ranking a dismal 27th out of the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Science, with a No. 20 ranking, isn’t much better.

“More than half of college entrants in the U.S. are women, but they make up only 18 percent of STEM students.”

Other developed nations, particularly the Asian triad of China, Singapore and Japan, have heavily invested in student STEM programs to secure a competitive edge in the global economy. Shanghai ninth graders now have the highest math and science scores in the OECD.

The biopharmaceutical industry feels the impact of these trends particularly hard. Our industry has five times the concentration of STEM jobs compared to the rest of the economy. And frustration levels accelerate when people realize the U.S. has 14 million unemployed people but 3 million STEM jobs quietly sitting vacant. We need diverse candidates from around the world – including the U.S. – to fill the gap.

So, what happens next? Somehow, more children from the U.S. and from around the world need to understand that STEM subjects are not only important, but also fun. They need to be inspired. And rather than being counseled to consider an area of study that’s more gender-traditional, all children need to be encouraged to consider STEM work as passion. After all, we don’t know who may unlock the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease, or potentially find the cure to cancer. We can’t afford to turn away any candidates.

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About the author:

Greg Kueterman has worked in the business of health care communications since 1996, including 14 years at Eli Lilly and Company. Greg currently works in corporate media relations at Lilly, where he manages media outreach for the company’s government affairs, public policy, and access organizations. He also provides strategic support for European Operations. Greg is also active on Lilly’s social media platforms.

Closing thought: Does the US educational system appropriately encourage young people to enter into science-based careers?