Technological innovation accounted for almost half of U.S. economic growth over the past 50 years, but the country's standing as the world's indisputable innovation leader is now at risk. In December, China surpassed the United States as the leading global patent filer — the first time any country has overtaken America.
In today's climate of intense competition, we must find ways to develop "integrative thinking" — the thinking that leads to new business ideas, especially in science and technology. Integrative thinkers turn challenges into real business opportunities through their ability to think critically, analytically, and with imagination. Their inspiring and visionary approach helps drive business growth.
For the pharmaceutical industry to remain financially viable, for example, we need scientists who can not only develop new life-saving medicines, but who can do it in a time- and cost-efficient manner. That requires integrative thinking.
Employers like Merck are always seeking integrative thinkers to join their workforces. This challenge has been especially difficult at the entry levels of science and engineering. New entrants often struggle to grasp how their research relates to other forces and issues at play. They are also poorly equipped to work effectively in a dynamic team setting where the flow of ideas is open and constant.
The problem, of course, is education. And it's more than just the fact that U.S. students rank 25th in math and 17th in science. These young employees have never learned how to focus on the important problems — we haven't adequately taught them how to think.
We must inspire students to find value in pursuing a career in science. K-12 science education has traditionally focused on memorizing discrete facts rather than understanding larger concepts and how they are connected to one another to create the exciting "big ideas." Likewise, laboratory experiences have focused on following stepwise procedures (like scientific methods) rather than emphasizing on how to organize mass amounts of information in a clear construct to solve complex science problems. The process-driven approach currently relied on in schools can lead to excessive focus on one aspect of science. Integrative thinking, on the other hand, reveals how various questions intersect, helps students understand the broader picture, and prepares them to address larger challenges.
Strong science teaching supports learning in all subjects, since science provides a foundation for the development of language, logic, and problem-solving skills. Science instruction that mirrors the way scientists do their work also motivates students to pursue science as a career.
At Merck, as part of our commitment to scientific innovation, we are working to foster the next generation of scientific leaders. A deep concern about the quality of science instruction in public schools led us to make major investments in pre-college science education. In 1993, we created a separate, non-profit organization, the Merck Institute for Science Education (MISE), dedicated to the improvement of science education for underserved populations.
Through MISE, we're committed to improving science teaching in public schools, with the goal to raise student interest, participation and performance so that all students can meet challenging national and state standards. MISE supports instruction with a focus on students investigating questions and solving problems. This inquiry approach teaches students to gather evidence in order to develop knowledge, drawing upon what they have experienced rather than simply repeating facts that they have memorized. For example, fourth-grade students who are studying interactions between land and water integrate what they have learned about soil, dams, water runoff, and land erosion to design and build a model landscape for a home and predict how it will withstand heavy rain and flooding. Students test their models, discuss and compare their predictions and results, and reflect upon how they can apply what they have learned to the real world.
MISE's charge is to collaborate with teachers, school administrators, parents, Merck employees, and higher education institutions to improve science education in the classroom as well as build consensus around the urgency for reform. Our company's support rests on strong public and private partnerships at local, regional, and national levels.
Similar approaches should be adopted by others in the private sector. Business leaders can influence decision makers with a clear vision for improving science teaching and learning, both in the classroom and beyond.
We view scientific literacy and education, like our R&D programs, as essential long-term investments for the future.
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on American Competitiveness.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 3/06/2012.
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