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Lagging U.S. math, science skills forcing scientist recruiters overseas

MedAdNews Insider interviews The Agency Worldwide’s EVP Jeff Appelbaum about the search for scientific talent

By Mia Burns

Many reports have surfaced that show that students in the United States have fallen behind in math and science, when compared with children in other nations. But how does this tie in with job recruitment in the life sciences? In many cases, recruiters are finding that they need to look abroad to find scientists that meet client requirements.

“We as a society are just not putting emphasis on that type of education anymore,” says Jeff Appelbaum, executive VP of The Agency Worldwide, a recruitment agency based in Los Angeles. “We’re not producing the scientists in house. We’re not producing domestic-based scientists anymore, not at a rate that is equal to the other parts of the world.”

A recent global study from the National Center for Education Statistics supports Appelbaum’s observations. The study found that young students in countries such as Finland and Singapore outperformed U.S. fourth graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, U.S. students had fallen behind their Russian, Japanese, and Taiwanese counterparts in math. Also, Hong Kong and South Korean students surpassed U.S. students in math. Globally, U.S. students came in eighth place in math.

As a father of three school-aged children, Appelbaum has witnessed some of this trend first hand. “I have three kids,” he said. “They’re in primary education right now. From my own experience, even dealing with primary and secondary education, and if you want to even want to broaden it out to our society as a whole — as a society, we no longer make it a priority to educate our kids in science, and math, and engineering. Our society doesn’t value it anymore. That’s the problem. That what the issue stems from. It’s not that the courses and the opportunity are not available; it’s just that we’re more worried about what the Kardashians are doing.”

One teacher per 40 children in a classroom isn’t education, it’s babysitting, he says. “Take that to the next level when they’re in high school or junior school, where you have 40 kids in a science classroom with one teacher. How much interest can you generate in those kids when you’re just trying to get through that 55 minute period? It’s very difficult. Until we as a society really focus on it make education in science and math and engineering sexy again, it’s not going to happen. We’re still going to fall behind. We’re still going to have to look elsewhere.”

The situation is not quite as dark as Appelbaum depicts. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, eighth graders in Massachusetts performed below only Singapore in science. However, the excellence of just one educational system will not pull the rest of the country along.

“A number of nations are out-educating us today in the STEM disciplines — and if we as a nation don’t turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy,” Duncan says.