By Elaine Scott and Daniel J. Abdun-Nabi
Washington is famous as a hub for software and aerospace. Less well-known is that the life sciences have become a vital sector of our economy. Bioscience is now Washington’s fifth-largest employer, contributing $8.9 billion to the local economy.
This trio of software, aerospace, and biotech is one of the largest contributors to the state’s economic future. To keep it going, however, state and federal officials must work to develop the workforce of tomorrow. That workforce will need sound training in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This growing need was the subject at the recent Life Science Day in Olympia. Washington’s bioscience leaders had the opportunity to meet with and educate state legislators about the industry and about the critical role of STEM education.
Much of the growth in Washington biotech has been driven by the state’s premier academic research institutions, the University of Washington and Washington State University. In 2010, higher education facilities spent more than $1.5 billion on research initiatives.
But despite Washington academia’s research success, there remains a profound skill mismatch in our life sciences and STEM-intensive sectors. As these industries expand, American high schools and colleges are producing fewer students with these core competencies.
The need for STEM workers will keep growing. The Information Technology &Innovation Foundation has predicted that the U.S. economy will demand between 20 percent and 30 percent more STEM graduates in the next two years alone.
Right now, the American education system is unable to meet this demand. In 19 other developed countries, colleges are graduating more STEM students than in the United States. One-fourth of American high-school students never attain math proficiency, and only seven percent reach the top two tiers of science skills. Compared to the rest of the world, math and science scores of American teenagers are only mediocre, with scores right in the middle globally.
So dire is this growing skills shortage that President Obama has made STEM improvement a national priority. “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do that job,” he noted in a speech last year. “That’s inexcusable.”
To help alleviate the skills gap, private sector industries have begun making their own investments in education. The pharmaceutical industry, in particular, has dedicated more than $100 million to STEM promotion programs since 2008. To date, more than 1.6 million American students have benefited from these initiatives.
Emergent BioSolutions, a global specialty pharmaceutical company with a product development facility in Seattle, embraces the importance of private-sector STEM initiatives. Central to our corporate social responsibility mission is to educate tomorrow’s scientific leaders.
Annually, Emergent hosts middle school, high school, and college students, who benefit from laboratory tours, hands-on experiments, panel discussions and poster sessions about careers in science, manufacturing and engineering. Most recently, Seattle employees managed an educational booth at the Pacific Science Center’s Life Sciences Research Weekend, to introduce students and parents to bispecific antibodies, blood cells, and clinical research. The three days of live demonstrations, interactive exhibits and panel sessions attracted over 12,000 visitors.
In the United States, too few students will find their way into STEM fields on their own. They need to be shown a path, and that entails getting them excited about science and technology at an early age.
It is also a given that unless we produce the STEM-competent workforce we need, innovation and economic growth will suffer. In a state as tech-dependent as Washington, that needs to be a priority.
The STEM event in Olympia highlighted the need for an effective partnership between the private sector and government policymakers. Now, we need to replicate that cooperation at the federal level.
Only four countries spend more than the United States per student, but American performance has stagnated as other countries have improved. We need action from both the private and public sectors to address this challenge.
Elaine Scott, Ph.D. is dean of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at University of Washington, Bothell. Daniel J. Abdun-Nabi is president and chief executive officer of Emergent BioSolutions.