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Are there enough young people going into science?

Across the world, scientific innovation is driving forward progress – from globalised drug development to technological expansion beyond Silicon Valley. In an era dubbed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, change is happening at a rapid pace and large scale.

But in a sector so reliant on top-tier skills, training up the new generation is essential. Are governments across the world investing enough in science education, and does science have enough people power to push ahead?

The changing face of science

Ask about youth entry into scientific careers and the answer you receive will depend on many factors – including where the question is asked.

China and India have overtaken the USA for STEM graduate numbers in recent years, meaning the future of science is likely to shift geographically. In China, a young and booming science industry goes hand-in-hand with generous government funding.

With population differences accounted for, the future still looks comparatively bright for Asia. Almost 1 in every 300th person in China is a STEM graduate, compared to roughly 1 in 600 in the USA. What’s more, change is happening fast – some estimates predict that the number of Chinese graduates aged 25 to 34 will rise 30 percent by 2030. 40 percent of Chinese students graduate with STEM degrees, compared to just 10 percent in the EU and around one third in the United States.

Though direct state funding plays a part in encouraging the development of emerging life science hubs, a closer look reveals a more complicated picture. In the UK, international postgraduate students have outnumbered British ones since 2009. A mixture of culture, finance and educational design appear to drive this.

The issue isn’t simply a matter of culture, and according to the UK’s Royal Pharmaceutical Society, some undergraduate degrees offer poor preparation for a career in science. The organisation notes that there is a cloudy link between some undergraduate courses and future industry needs.

Though plenty of young people are entering science, they aren’t doing so in the traditional science hotspots. This means top global corporations may need to look overseas for the top talent, and cross-border innovation will become increasingly important.

Emerging tech skills: a ticking time bomb?

Technology is transforming all things science, from engineering to healthcare. Few scientific sectors will remain unchanged, leading to industry-wide anxiety about a skills gap when traditional knowledge is no longer enough.

In fact, innovative science firms need more than two core skill sets in this brave new digital age. A globalised world driven by Big Data means expertise will need to span regulatory, government relations and advanced problem solving, as well as digital skills.

Life Science consultancies are already paving the way, since tight regulations and a global focus has made it necessary to hone multiple areas of expertise and to look to broaden horizons beyond one geographical area. In the future, it will become necessary for other sectors to combine traditional knowledge with digital skills and legal know-how.

This may result in an increased pressure for science professionals to retrain throughout their careers. Large organisations, universities and governments will need to consider how they create a better-equipped workforce for the future of science.

Working towards a solution

Huy Le, an associate professor from the University of Texas, has identified some factors that could lead to more Americans taking up science. During his research, Le found it was possible to identify students suited to a STEM career up to a decade before they graduated.

"People seek out the environment that fits their personal characteristics," Le said. But, there are ways of influencing capable students to take a move towards STEM, including greater promotion of STEM by careers advisors.

Le found that many students who excelled cognitively also had advanced verbal skills. The challenge, then, is to persuade students with a wide range of career options that science can be a realistic and lucrative career.

As we work to encourage the innovators of tomorrow to get into science, industry professionals should also consider how they can attract the best talent to keep their research sharp and profitable for decades to come. Adapting to an international mindset and creating a diversely skilled workforce are just some ways business leaders can work to protect their empire and provide enough ‘pull’ factors to entice young people to want to work for them.