The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) kicked off its annual meeting in Atlanta, Georgia today and shortly thereafter, issued a press release detailing an education study (that it commissioned) which suggests that American high school students are continuing to fall behind in life sciences education and competitiveness. The timing of the BIO education report is curious, given that over 100,000 life sciences employees have lost their jobs over the past several years and more job cuts at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are expected in the next six months or so.
The report concluded that “middle and high school students across the country are generally falling behind in life sciences, and the nation is at risk of producing a dearth of qualified workers for the life sciences industry. Students are showing less interest in taking life sciences and science courses, and high schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for college-level science, The deficiencies will hurt the country’s competitiveness with the rest of the world in the knowledge-based economy.”
Some of the report’s finding include:
- 52 percent of 12th graders are at or above a basic level of achievement in the sciences as measured by the NAEP science test
- Average scores on the NAEP for 12th graders in the sciences and life sciences declined from 1996 to 2005
- Only 28 percent of high school students taking the ACT reached a score indicating college readiness for biology.
The report also found a deficiency in the number of well-qualified biology teachers available in high school, with one-in-eight biology teachers not certified to teach biology. To improve U.S. competitiveness in the biosciences industry, the report recommends that states incorporate biotechnology into their science standards, make sure students are ready to take college biosciences courses and focus more on professional development for teachers.
While BIO ought to be commended for the study, the results and the conclusions of the report are nothing new and have been known for over a decade by industry thought leaders and life sciences industry executives. The crux of the problem is that neither academia nor industry is willing to provide funds or invests in ways to find a solution to this vexing, ongoing issue. Also,while high school science curriculum experts and teachers are typically cited as the cause of the problem, most of the blame more aptly lies with life science educators at the undergraduate and graduate school levels.
Today, many US high schools and community colleges already offer life sciences and biotechnology training to their students. In fact, biotechnology curriculum development and outreach has been ongoing in US for well over a decade. For example, Bio-Link, an NSF-funded consortium of community colleges that began in the late 1990s, has diligently worked to create a network of community colleges and high schools that offer biotechnology education and training ranging from biomanufacturing to bioinformatics to forensic DNA sciences. Further, a quick perusal of many high schools and science academies in biotechnology-rich locales like the Northeast, California, New Jersey, Maryland, North Carolina and others reveals that life sciences education and training are readily available to many students interested in biology and bioscience.
In my opinion, the system doesn’t break down at the high school level but at the undergraduate and graduate school levels. This is because for the past 15 years, many undergraduate life sciences courses have jettisoned their hands on laboratory components in favor of more lecture driven and e-based learning experiences. This is because these laboratories are costly to run and extremely labor intensive. Further, many undergraduate students may choose not pursue science careers because of the mistaken perception that life sciences jobs require a PhD. Ironically, there are many more jobs in the life sciences industry for students with undergraduate or masters’ degrees than for those with PhD. This is because there is a glut of PhDs in today’s market and the number of jobs in academia and the life sciences industry are growing smaller. I believe that academia and industry are responsible for the rapidly declining job market for PhD-life sciences.
First, let’s look at academia. Most academicians who are charged with training PhDs and postdoctoral fellows have little appreciation or understanding of the technical and regulatory skill sets required in the life sciences industry. Second, many academics don’t feel that it is their responsibility to prepare students and postdoctoral fellows for jobs in industry because that is tantamount to job training—a big no-no in academic circles. Finally,and perhaps most important, graduate programs are reluctant to provide career counseling or job-specific training for their students because it might interfere with their productivity, which in turn may reduce the amount of data principal investigators have to write papers and win grants to fund their laboratories. In other words, there is little or no incentive for education and training to change at the graduate level because there is no benefit or upside to principal investigators and tenured faculty members.
While the American life sciences industry has loudly and repeatedly complained about a lack of qualified job candidates to work at its companies, they have done little to support and fund efforts to reform US life science education and training. This is likely because many life sciences executives contend that they are in business not education and the responsibility to prepare students for careers in science should not fall on them. Rather, it rightfully belongs in the purview of secondary and post secondary educational institutions. And, rather than train new employees without previous industrial experience (to inject new talent and ideas into their organizations), companies typically only hire job candidates with previous industrial experience. As many newly minted PhD and postdoctoral students frequently ask: “How are we suppose to get industrial experience if nobody will hire us without previous industrial experience?” Good question!
The BIO report warns that the US is falling behind in bioscience education and American life science companies may experience workforce shortages in the future. The fact that about 100,000 (many of whom were scientists) pharmaceutical employees have lost their jobs over the past several years, suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, American science education and training needs to be improved and reformed if the US wants to maintain its dominance in the life sciences. The piecemeal approach that has been pursued for past decade or so hasn’t worked. And why should it? Neither academia nor industry, the two main players in the story, don’t really have any “skin in the game.” In other words, they have nothing to lose right now!
I believe that its time for academia, industry and government to come together to craft a cohesive, national life science curriculum that meets the needs of all stakeholders. We have a President in the White House who believes in science, the ingenuity of the American people and change. The time is now!
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!