Point of view

Congress could imperil progress in engineering and science education

April 8, 2014 

Every day, hundreds of Wake County high school students fill N.C. State’s engineering and science classrooms. They’re there to gain the skills they need for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The number of high-tech opportunities is rapidly increasing so partnerships like this are more important than ever.

Fortunately, STEM initiatives abound in North Carolina. More than 100 Duke students recently took part in a three-day challenge to develop ideas for improving STEM education. This winter, Ecolab pledged $5,000 to Junior Achievement of Central North Carolina to advance STEM education for Guilford County K-12 students.

The continued success of efforts like these isn’t guaranteed. That’s why policymakers in Washington must be mindful of policies that affect high-tech industries like the life sciences.

Over the past six years, America’s life science companies have devoted $100 million toward grants, new lab equipment, science fairs, after-school programs, industry volunteers and professional teacher development.

In Research Triangle Park, Biogen Idec sponsored STEM educators in the Teach for America program, providing intensive training, support and career development. GSK leads a hands-on summer program that introduces elementary schoolchildren to cells and genetics. The Research Triangle Park Foundation has helped support the NC STEM Learning Network and its education efforts.

Taken together, industry efforts nationally have aided more than 17,000 teachers and affected upward of 1.6 million students.

These companies aren’t just being altruistic. The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on STEM talent. The life sciences industry’s share of high-tech jobs is five times the national average.

But the number of qualified STEM workers hasn’t kept pace with demand. A recent survey of manufacturers found that 600,000 jobs requiring STEM skills remain vacant. More than three-quarters of Fortune 1000 talent recruiters report a scarcity of STEM talent, and nearly all worry that the country’s global leadership is in danger because of this shortage.

The problem is only getting worse. According to a Presidential Advisory Council report, the country will need a million more STEM graduates to fill expected demand over the next decade.

But not nearly enough American youth are excelling in STEM subjects. The United States now ranks below average in both science and math compared with our global competitors. And less than a third of our students leave college with a degree in science or engineering – a dismal 20th place worldwide.

We need creative public and private initiatives to reverse this disturbing trend.

The biopharmaceutical industry is leading the way. But a number of policies that would make it difficult for life sciences companies to invest in STEM programs – like limitations on data protection and rebates on medications – are under consideration in Washington. These proposals threaten the future of STEM industries throughout our state and across the country.

Harming the biopharmaceutical industry restricts its ability to invest in medical research, create jobs and develop the workforce. North Carolina and the country as a whole will have fewer, well-paying STEM opportunities if policymakers pass punitive policies. Lawmakers should instead work with the industry to help it create the jobs that keep our communities strong.

High-skilled workers are critical to North Carolina and the nation’s future. Our leaders must whole-heartedly support efforts to cultivate STEM talent.

Lee Sartain is an education policy specialist at the William and Ida Friday Institute for Educational Innovation on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus.

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