Top executives from the pharmaceutical industry gathered in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to prescribe a remedy to "reinvigorate" America's stagnating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sectors.
Joined by former NASA astronaut Mae C. Jemison, the first woman of color to go to space, the solutions were at once far-reaching and strikingly simple.
In short: "Demystify" the sciences to make them less intimidating, "revitalize" science education by making it "more exciting" and step-up outreach efforts to make sure more women and minorities enter STEM fields.
"The United States must invest in STEM education efforts," said John Castellani, president and CEO of the trade and lobbying group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "It is a national imperative if we want to keep high-value, high-paying jobs in the United States."
High-school math and science scores have stagnated for the past 10 years, leaving the U.S. trailing at least 29 nations in math and 22 in science. Meanwhile, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte reported last winter that 600,000 manufacturing jobs remained unfilled, mostly in skilled positions requiring a STEM background.
"Right now, as we all know, the United States is not supplying the highly-skilled STEM workers our economy needs," Castellani said.
The solution, he and the conference's eight other speakers argued, is to not merely help more students pursue STEM educations, but to also make every student "STEM literate."
"STEM tackles so many aspects of people's lives," said Brian Kelly, editor and chief content officer of U.S. News & World Report, which organized Wednesday's conference with PhRMA and publishes an annual ranking of the top jobs in the country. "Nineteen of the top 20 of what we view as the best jobs require STEM skills."
As Jemison described, "We don't really need to get so into the research precisely – that's dear to my heart, it's really important. But [STEM] education goes across the societal platform.... Even hairdressers – you want your hairdressers to know about pH balance."
The key, she and others said, is to make every student at least "STEM literate," comfortable with using the scientific method – and technology – to generate ideas, test them, and then analyze and translate the results. And we need to start early.
"Allow children to experiment," Jemison said, from examining worms in the backyard to helping a parent in the kitchen.
"Baking is chemistry," she pointed out.
In fact, "It doesn't need to be anything you can touch," Jemison said. "What do all kids like? They like space and dinosaurs. It's abstract. Nobody's touched a dinosaur."
Carmela Mascio, a senior research associate at the company Cubist, also urged teachers to build relationships with their students to help breakdown expectations of what a scientist should look like.
"'What is a scientist to you? What does that mean?' Make it real to students. Make it possible," she said.
As Jemison argued near the close of her remarks, "It's not nicety. It's necessity."