UB op-ed: Massachusetts Life Sciences Center

Fueling the pipeline of young scientists in the 'hub of the universe'

For generations, the American public has been told by venerable think tanks like Brookings, Pew and other educational research foundations and professional associations that American students lag significantly behind their global counterparts when it comes to math and science aptitude. This research suggests that over the past 20 years, the US has only marginally improved its global math and science student aptitude ranking.

When we sought independent life science ranking validation, we identified several seminal factors which explain this enigma, given the level of resources invested in U.S. public and private schools, colleges and universities. Like so many other surveys of academic and career performance, we sense a new set of myths and realities explaining these educational disparities.

The first set of myths surrounds the global perception of U.S student talent and the commitment of our teachers. At the end of the day, critical factors include the depth, breadth and rigor of the curriculum, and, importantly, the critical skills and competencies that we teach. Rather than shooting for individualized student mastery of math, science, engineering and technology skills, the American system often reflects a one-size-fits-all teach-to-the-test, lowest common denominator approach. At the high end of the spectrum, the US educational system does not always engage gifted and talented students in a way that optimizes their potential. This talented and gifted student gap makes it difficult for the US to remain competitive with other Nations in science and math.

Thus, curriculum frameworks, teaching and learning rubrics and course content are just as important as raw intelligence when it comes to independent thinking, creativity, and recognition there are multiple ways to solve a problem—not just one “right way”.

Life science leaders

Beyond academics, America has deified youth sports to the point of narrowing both time and resources to move the math and science pedagogical needle. In fact, many American families will spend far more of their discretionary income on athletic coaches and sports skills training than on academic enrichment, tutoring and mentoring. This misperception is exacerbated when the American public reads about admissions scams where wealthy, celebrity parents obtained admission to college for their children through bribes to college athletic coaches or paying third parties to inflate their child’s SAT and ACT scores.

For this month, we decided to journey across the United States to investigate which States lead in life science education and training and, significantly, what mix of variables most influences academic performance and career outcomes. The results were fascinating.

Over the past decade, Metropolitan Boston has been considered the “Best Place in the World” to launch a Biotech Company—with Cambridge’s Kendall Square serving as home to the highest concentration of biotech companies in the world. During this gestational period, Massachusetts has established itself as home to the most verdant and prolific life sciences educational and career ecosystem in the United States.

Through a broad range of public and private funding partnerships, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has spawned a new level of innovation, research and development, commercialization and smart manufacturing in the fields of life and health sciences, pharma sciences, medical devices and diagnostic medical equipment. This did not happen by accident. It was the direct result of a billion-dollar strategic investment over ten years—positively impacting Massachusetts life science competitiveness in our schools, industries and boardrooms. At its heart, the Center serves as a catalyst for companies which intersect at innovation, academic, workforce, economic and community development, great science, and positive patient outcomes.

Through unique public-private partnerships with world-class life and health science organizations, MLSC invests in the innovation; infrastructure; fosters early stage life science industries; and helps life science start-up companies succeed, scale up, and employ the most educated, talented, and diverse life sciences workforce in the Nation.

Not surprisingly, Boston is next followed by the San Francisco Bay Area; followed by the Raleigh Durham Research Triangle; San Diego; Seattle and New Jersey Metropolitan regions. These National life science leaders are now followed by a new set of emerging competitors in the metropolitan areas of the Southwest in Denver; Houston and Austin; and in the north, New York, Philadelphia, Delaware, DC, as well as Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul in the Midwest.

Common characteristics

When we looked across the life science talent pool in the U.S., the successful states shared a common core of characteristics including major research universities; talented young scientists; National Institutes of Health grants; breakthrough discoveries of intellectual property, commercialization, technology transfer and patentable inventions; prolific lab space ranging from wet labs to clean rooms; state and municipal tax incentives; clinical trials; corporate wages and compensation; creation of new life science jobs; and connectivity between business, industry and academia.

Despite the dwindling pool of NIH and other federal research dollars, Massachusetts has held its own competitive position at the top of the life science mountain by investing and co-investing in infrastructure and equipment, seed stage development, scaling of experimentation; and strengthening the linkage between industry, education and training. Impressively, Mass Life Sciences Center has funded approximately 3,800 internships with 750 companies for college and university students.

“Massachusetts is host to 16 of the 20 largest pharmaceutical companies and all ten of the largest medical device companies in the world,” says MLSC president and CEO Travis McCready. “Many of them in cities and towns outside of Boston and Cambridge. We have a burgeoning entrepreneurial life sciences ecosystem—one district containing more tech and biotech companies per square mile than anywhere else in the world. We have working class cities incubating biologics manufacturing, powered by skilled labor trained in some of the best vocational schools and community colleges in the nation. We incubate and attract the world’s most talented scientists and researchers who passionately and tirelessly pursue cures for human disease and disorders.”

In his satirical essay “The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table,” appearing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1858, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes named Boston as the hub of the universe (solar system):

“[The] Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man, if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.”

Who would have guessed that the 1982 opening of Biogen facilities in Cambridge, Massachusetts was the beginning of a massive new industry that transformed the Massachusetts and global economy and has gone on to spawn new hope and treatments for disabling and fatal diseases around the world?

What the Mass Life Science Center experiment proves is that it is possible to create new jobs, have a more competitive work force and inspire the next generation of scientists if you are committed to partner academia with industry, and actually join the worlds of learning and earning for the sustainable growth and development of the life sciences ecosystem.

James E. Samels is President and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law

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