The U.S. is the mecca of biotech. Most top companies in the field are based here. Government research budgets in biology are immense and growing. Universities compete to attract great professors. Students flock to their courses. And once they're armed with graduate degrees, they can count on landing a job in the industry.
Or can they? In recent months biotech outfits have begun to complain that job applicants coming out of U.S. universities lack the knowhow companies seek. Left unresolved, the troubles could stifle growth in this booming sector, valued at $48 billion last year by consultant Ernst & Young. The knowledge deficiencies could also force biotech companies to move more of their operations overseas, say executives and recruiters.
The problem is a disconnect between what universities are teaching and what biotech wants. "The focus of academia is getting basic and theoretical knowledge in place," says E. Dale Sevier, a director at the California State University Program for Education & Research in Biotechnology. "The skills needed to be successful in the industry are just not taught in universities."
There are several weaknesses. First, recent grads lack the technical knowledge to carry out applied research in areas that straddle engineering, math, and computers. Second, job candidates have little awareness of what the Food & Drug Administration is looking for when it considers whether or not to approve a drug. Recent grads simply aren't familiar with issues such as quality control and regulatory affairs. Academic programs "don't train students to function in today's small-R, large-D environment," says Stephen Dahms, president and CEO of the Alfred E. Mann Foundation for Biomedical Engineering.
The California State University biotech program tried to identify what companies want from new hires in a 2000 report. Close to the top of the list are familiarity with FDA compliance, experience in clinical trial design, and quality control. All require knowledge of computing, statistics, and database management--pretty low priorities for most academic biotech programs.
As it happens, these are common credentials for foreign researchers in the U.S. who hold temporary work papers known as H-1B visas. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services reports that 3.6% of all H-1B visas for 2003, a total of 7,119, went to employees in scientific research and development. Some 80% of them have graduate degrees from U.S. universities, Dahms says, but "there's something special about the prior exposure of foreign nationals. They have a more applied R&D perspective." Of course, there are smart U.S.-born candidates with good math and computer skills. But they're rarely fluent in both math and life sciences.
Invitrogen Corp. (IVGN), a biotech company in Carlsbad, Calif., currently employs about 75 H-1B visa holders in a workforce of 5,000, and it needs more. The company hired 1,000 people last year and will raise that to 1,400 this year. But with H-1B quotas filling up earlier every year, Invitrogen has chosen to do more drug development in Japan, China, and India. It may also open facilities in Korea and Singapore, says Rodney Moses, Invitrogen's vice-president of talent acquisition. Compensation in China and India is lower than in the U.S., but that's not what motivates the move offshore, says Moses. "If the talent is located in Singapore, it's just easier for us to go there."
U.S. colleges take the problem seriously. State university systems in California, Wisconsin, and elsewhere are adding more industry-oriented classes. California State has crafted a curriculum that includes chemistry, engineering, and computer science. A new biotech program at the University of Wisconsin's Stout campus offers statistics and technical writing. Students must also work full-time at a biotech company during the summer or for a semester.
Industry buys into this idea. Invitrogen is sponsoring occupational summer camps for high school students, hoping to nudge them into taking more science and math courses. Many other companies are setting up intern and apprentice programs to identify promising students and prepare them for a post-academic career. After all, the goal in industry isn't just to raise interesting questions, as in academia. It's to find the answers.
By Nichola Saminather