Math Science Scientific Advancement

March 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The study of genes is expected to be the economic driver of the century, and America has to revamp its educational system by putting greater emphasis on math and science education if it wants to be a major player in the field of genomics.

That was the message David Van Andel, chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute, delivered to members of the Grand Rapids Rotary Club Thursday.

Since uncovering the sequencing of the entire human genome in February 2001, scientists have had the means to deepen their understanding of how diseases and the human body are programmed and how they can be reprogrammed. And as they delve more deeply into the genetic study of disease, the focus of medicine is expected to shift from treating and curing disease to preventing it altogether, Van Andel explained.

Education is the foundation for scientific advancement, he said, and the future of scientific achievement in the United States will be in the hands of the next generation. But will American children be adequately prepared to be the scientists, researchers and doctors of tomorrow? Not unless they embrace math and science education now, he said.

Van Andel pointed to the results of a recent national study in which 68 percent of high school students said that high school classes should be updated to better match the skills employers want. Some 45 percent of students polled indicated they would be “really unhappy” in a career that requires doing a lot of math or science. Furthermore, the same poll showed that only 32 percent of their parents thought American schools should teach more math and science.

The health care industry is already the state of Michigan’s largest single employer, and the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Growth projects that by 2015, the state is going to need to fill more than 100,000 professional and technical health care jobs.

But as Van Andel pointed out, health care is not the only area of growth in the life sciences, as witnessed by the growing investment in that sector locally.

“Innovative manufacturers such as Autocam, Cascade Engineering and Perrigo are blending our regional tradition of strong manufacturing technology, engineering and product development with the growing market demand for products to serve this industry,” he said. The state, too, is helping to boost life science with initiatives such as SmartZones, designated locations where technology-based firms, startups and research firms can cluster together and spin off each other.

The private sector’s investment, coupled with state initiatives like the 21st Century Jobs Fund and the Michigan Strategic Fund, is helping to fuel the development of the health sciences industry. But is the area’s work force equipped to keep pace?

“I can tell you from our own experience we are going to need human capital. We are going to need people who are well-versed in math and science in order to maintain and grow that sector,” he said.

Although the United States still dominates the world of science and technology, Van Andel said that won’t hold true much longer if the educational trends in this country continue. He pointed out that the number of Ph.D.s awarded in science in the United States has been dropping since the mid-1990s, yet over that same period, the number awarded in China has been growing exponentially. Only 5.7 percent of 24-year-old Americans hold science degrees, ranking the United States 25th among all nations in that respect.

Van Andel underscored the point by quoting from a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine. The report states that “without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living.” The No. 1 recommendation made by the authors of the report was to increase America’s talent pool by vastly improving K- 12 sciences and math education. An analysis conducted by 15 national business organizations indicated that if something isn’t done fast, by 2010 more than 90 percent of all scientists and engineers in the world will be living in Asia.

It’s clear, Van Andel said, that in order to tap Michigan’s potential in life sciences and technology, there has to be a new, diligent focus on education.

The VAI is doing its part with the introduction of a couple new educational initiatives: The Van Andel Institute Science Academy and the Van Andel Education Institute Graduate School in cellular and molecular genetics.

The new science academy launches its “Signature Program” this summer, a program that will give 20 fourth- and fifth-grade students from the area a chance to experience science during a month-long summer course once a year for three years. The academy’s mission, Van Andel said, is to grow scientists.

“We want children to dream of discovery. We want them to aspire to cure disease and enrich lives,” he said. “The bottom line is we want to inspire kids to ask more questions, to dig in and make discoveries, and to envision themselves as the scientists of the future.”    

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