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John J. Castellani

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Science, Innovation and Sally Ride

Posted: 08/02/2012 9:20 am

America is mourning the loss of Sally Ride, the first female astronaut in the U.S. to go to space, a pioneer who paved the way for many generations of women to pursue careers in the male-dominated field of science.

Pancreatic cancer took her from us.

While we at PhRMA often tout the amazing arsenal of cancer medicines developed by the innovative biopharmaceutical industry, we know that medicines aren't always successful in preventing patients from losing their battle against this terrible disease. This is a reality that we don't often write about but one we all are all too familiar with.

But this very fact is what drives this industry. Every lost battle against disease motivates biopharmaceutical scientists researching potential new cancer treatments to keep trying, despite the enormous odds they face in the long and arduous drug discovery process.

The fact that there are now 58 new medicines in development for pancreatic cancer alone reflects how committed our sector's scientists are to this cause.

But this is not about the medicines that are being developed for patients with cancer. Rather, we should honor Sally's legacy by ensuring that our nation can build new generations of scientists who can help meet the many challenges before us today and tomorrow.

This is particularly relevant as our nation's youth are becoming less interested in the field of science -- the very field that Sally and many other astronauts before her built their dreams on.

There is no doubt that science careers are difficult; it requires a different way of thinking to approach complex problems with innovative solutions. But it is this subject that can help ensure that future innovation in the U.S. can flourish and grow.

After all, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields provided a strong educational foundation for innovators to build the space shuttle, discover the computer chip and even develop a vaccine that can help prevent cervical cancer.

According to the National Science Foundation, 80 percent of new jobs in the next decade will require some form of math or science -- making it even more important for us to make STEM more interesting and appealing to our nation's youth.

Just as Sally built a science academy to raise students' interest in the subject, we must continue to think of creative new ways to attract younger generations to this field. And part of my mission leading America's research-based biopharmaceutical industry is to do just that.

Science defines the very industry I represent. Scientists are the heart and soul of the biopharmaceutical enterprise.

Without these scientists, our industry -- and the life-saving therapies it develops -- would cease to exist.

As you can imagine, our industry has a great stake in making sure that a new generation of talented scientists spend their careers in the U.S. America too has a lot at stake, especially if we want to defeat complex diseases such as cancer with breakthrough medicines.

The good news is that the biopharmaceutical industry is considered a great source of STEM jobs. We have also done a lot to encourage many generations of students to enter these fledging fields through scholarships and other educational programs. The PhRMA Foundation, for example, has provided tens of millions of dollars in grants and fellowships for biopharmaceutical scientists to move forward in their career path over the last 47 years.

And while recent efforts by the Administration and Congress to help build interest among grade school children in STEM education should be applauded, more must be done. The reality is that our nation is still very much at risk of losing the ground under our feet when it comes to our leadership in the STEM fields.

Reinforcing this point is a report by President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, which found that the U.S. will need to produce one million additional STEM graduates over the next decade to maintain its position as the world leader in science and technology innovation. Yet fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field actually complete a STEM degree.

It is my hope that despite the political gridlock in our nation's capital, support for STEM education and policies that incentivize innovation in the U.S., will remain top national priority. If not, our innovative spirit and leadership will be in serious trouble.

PhRMA is working on some exciting programs intended to help boost STEM education in the U.S., which will be announced soon. But it is clear that the challenge we face with STEM cannot be met by just industry or the government. Rather, it is something we must all confront together so that younger generations can continue to build on the innovative foundations of our forefathers.

Let's do this not only for Sally but also for the future of America.

 
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