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Needed: More Biotech Education

BIOTECHNOLOGY industries could be very important contributors to future economic growth. Yet because of uncertainty as to the direction of a new industry, neither companies in the industry nor individuals are undertaking sufficient investment in human resources - that is, in education and training - to enable the United States to sustain its leadership position. The pace of economic growth is affected by cycles of industrial adjustment and consolidation. For example, after a sustained period of fast growth, the computer industry is now in transition to slower growth. Given the increased competition faced by aging industries and the shortening life cycle for high technology products, the need for continual innovation becomes apparent.

Hence, US economic growth is increasingly dependent on young high-technology industries like biotechnology. However, inadequate human resources are becoming a major barrier to the expansion of biotechnology industries in the US, even in outstanding centers of the industry, such as New England.

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Universities in a world-class academic center like Boston have not been able to attract sufficient students to their programs. This suggests that shortages of different types of personnel may become acute soon. These constraints could cause the relocation of facilities abroad, the transfer of technology, and the loss of domestic jobs and export sales.

Biotechnology is entering a new stage of its growth. Much of the past development of the industry has focused on research efforts to develop recombinant DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), cell fusion, and bioprocessing engineering. After 15 years of research following the first successful insertion of foreign DNA in a host organism in 1973, the biotechnology industry is finally bringing new products to market.

Now the drive is to turn scientific ideas into businesses with clearly defined market niches. Potential industrial applications of biotechnology products include products to improve plant and animal agriculture, specialty chemicals and food activities, environmental applications, pharmaceutical products, commodity chemicals and bioelectronic products, including biosensors and new conducting devices called biochips. Commercial applications of biotechnological advances have expanded widely in the last year and will continue to do so over the next decade.

The US currently has a lead over its competitors because it has a high concentration of engineers and scientists involved in research and development and strong research capabilities. Nonetheless, unless the industry can persuade high school students to train for careers in science, the future of biotechnology will be in jeopardy.

To understand what would lead students to choose a career in science, it is important to understand that the demand for different types of employment skill is changing constantly. At any point in time, people are responding to incentives to reallocate their talents and abilities. Poor human resource planning can result in costly marketplace failures. Products cannot be brought to market if there is a lack of people with the right research, manufacturing, and business skills.

People react according to what they expect the future gains to be. So far, not enough people are training for occupations in biotechnology industries, in part because companies have not earned sufficient profits to justify the risk of undertaking the education or retraining required.

The problem is further compounded because of demographic changes. Overall, the number of new entrants into the labor force is shrinking. Moreover, in the next decade only 15 percent of these entrants into the labor force will be white males, compared to 47 percent today. As a result, there is an urgent need to train minority workers in complex new job skills.

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The willingness to educate oneself or train for a career in new technology is affected by any number of factors, including the demands for different types of labor in specific locations, prospective earning in different occupations, geographic and occupational shifts in job opportunities, and prospects for advancement. Prospects for the long term in the biotechnology industry are good, particularly in regions with strong academic research, such as New England. Yet the industry will need not only PhDs for research but also high school and college graduates with the aptitude and skills needed to adjust smoothly to market changes in the next phase of the industry's development.