Astellas Innovation Challenge to Get Young People into STEM
Although STEM offers exciting career prospects, young people shy away from scientific subjects. Astellas Innovation Challenge aims to change that state of affairs while improving pharma’s image.
Although science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are the four disciplines essential to a knowledge-based economy, they’re not the most popular career choices for many young people. Despite high declared interest – 83% of surveyed pupils claimed they were interested in physics at school – only 37% of students aged 11-16 consider themselves likely to take up STEM in higher education. The data comes from an online survey conducted by YouGov Plc on a sample of 589 school students aged 11 to 16. The figures have been weighted and are representative of British school students aged 11-16.
“I’m not sure we fully understand this discrepancy,” said Alan McDougall, Area Medical Director, Astellas Pharma Europe during an interview with eyeforpharma to explain the Astellas Innovation Challenge. “I suppose there is a perception that those subjects are difficult, and people go for subjects in which they can get good grades. There is a tendency to go for the “easy win”, despite the fact that the subjects perceived as harder offer better career prospects. But the survey didn’t tease it out,” McDougall added.
Realizing that Britain is falling behind other countries in producing scientists and engineers, the government launched campaigns targeting students that aim to increase the number of pupils taking maths at A-level by 50% in three years. Your Life is a three-year campaign striving to help young adults in the UK to get the maths and science skills needed to success in the competitive global economy. “We will do this by inspiring young people to study maths and physics as an opening to exciting and wide-ranging careers,” reads the statement on the governmental website on engaging the public with science and engineering.
The campaign has three main objectives: first, to change the way young people think about maths and science by raising awareness of the exciting and wide-ranging careers that studying these subjects can lead to; second, to increase participation in maths and science studies at age 16 and beyond; third, to increase opportunities for all people and particularly women to pursue a wide range of careers that need skills in science, technology, engineering, and maths. In November 2014, Your Life is speaking directly to young people through a national media campaign and in schools across the country.
The government isn’t the only body interested in raising awareness about the importance of studying STEM subjects. Pharma are also getting involved by creating initiatives that encourage young people to put their imagination and skills to the test. In September 2014, Rachel Riley, TV presenter and Oxford Maths graduate, launched the Astellas Innovation ChallengeTM across England, Scotland, and Wales. The competition is designed to increase interest among school students in taking up STEM subjects at university and beyond. The Challenge is asking the next generation of would-be entrepreneurs and innovators to design a mobile app that encourages healthy living.
“We wanted to encourage young kids, year 10/11, to pursue careers in STEM subjects. Since everything nowadays is app-based, we thought it would be great to combine the health industry and app design by getting them to design, on paper, an app for health. The subject of the competition is fairly broad, so we’re letting their imagination run with it. The winning submission will have their app developed by a professional app designer,” McDougall explained. “Hopefully this will intrigue them into wanting to know how to program. Putting their ideas together on paper will engage them and make them think.”
People need to understand how pharma works. We need to keep the conversation going. We need to talk to medical schools because by the time the doctors are qualified their views are set. Pharma need to hit the medical schools and educate students about the industry to reshape the general perception".
While the primary aim of the challenge is to increase the popularity of STEM subjects among young adults, the organizers hope that it will also increase the profile of pharma as a future career choice. “We’d like to think that we’re promoting the image of our company as well as the industry as a place where they might have a career,” McDougall asserted. While he himself trained as a GP, he never thought of working for pharma as a potential career. “Industry needs to talk more about the opportunities,” he added.
Although career opportunities abound within the industry, especially for people with scientific backgrounds, pharma needs to redeem themselves in the public eye before the talent pool they can choose from can expand. The public don’t understand the enormous complexity of the drug development process, and unless pharma reaches out and educates them, the industry will remain a public enemy.
“There is always negative press, but there are also positive stories that deserve more attention, like the fact that, thanks to pharma, HIV now is a chronic condition that people can live with. This is astounding! People need to understand how pharma works. We need to keep the conversation going. We need to talk to medical schools because by the time the doctors are qualified their views are set. Pharma need to hit the medical schools and educate students about the industry to reshape the general perception.”
Trends and the future
Pharma’s image is becoming increasingly important as the industry is moving into disease prevention. Prevention is cheaper than treatment, and it will now be high on the agenda of healthcare providers. Pharma must fit in with that trend.
Another emerging trend that pharma needs to accommodate is personalized medicine. There is a pressing need to develop tests that will accurately identify patients for whom given treatment will work, and for whom it won’t. This will have a significant impact on the prevalence of side-effects, and will increase the effectiveness of medication.
In addition, McDougall noted, pharma needs to respond to the global pressures to develop medicines that bring substantial benefit to society, rather than work with incremental innovation: “If you think a medicine is very expensive to develop and brings minimal additional value, maybe you should consider discontinuing the development of it because people will no longer pay for minor improvements. You have to show significant additional benefit. It’s a mindset shift that pharma need to embrace".
In the future, pharma executives will need to have a finely-tuned commercial sense, and be ready to pull the plug on a project that does not have reimbursement in its future.
Engaging the public and attempting to popularize STEM subjects has the potential to improve pharma’s image. The public need to understand the complexity of the drug development process if they are to change their negative perception of the industry.
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