Biggest need for New Jersey’s STEM future: Keeping our talent here

At start of state’s STEM month, heads of HINJ, R&D Council state case for keeping schoolkids home

In the 1950s, the Russian launch of Sputnik was the seminal event that got Americans of that generation to focus on science and technology, attracting students to those disciplines who would help make the U.S. the innovation center of the world. The COVID pandemic can be this generation’s seminal event for the next wave of advances in medical research in science, technology, engineering and math — or, what we now call STEM.

Dean Paranicas. (File photos)

A new paradigm, driven by the pandemic, has been rapidly evolving that embraces the entire spectrum of our innovation ecosystem — research-based biopharmaceutical, biotech, medical technology and diagnostic companies, academic institutions and even government working together on new projects. It has riveted everyone’s attention, and we now know what we need to do to be competitive in this next era of innovation.

The established lengthy time frame for medical innovation needed to be accelerated to meet COVID’s urgent demands, and our innovation community responded in spectacular fashion. What will the model look like going forward?

“The societal push to make more discoveries in shorter periods of time has had one fantastic byproduct: It has forced all those participating in the field to work together — as they did during the race to find a therapeutic for COVID-19,” Dr. David Perlin, the chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation, who recently received the Sol Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership from BioNJ, recently told ROI-NJ.

Anthony Cicatiello.

Collaboration therefore is the key to the future, and, with the technology available today, broad distribution of knowledge will provide the vehicle for future research discoveries. This, then, begets the threshold question of, how do we get to where we need to go in medical innovation, and who will lead us there?

In a word, the answer is “talent” — and plenty of it from the STEM fields. Sustainability includes human capital, and, while we have an exceptional technical workforce in New Jersey with the most scientists and engineers per square mile in the country, it needs to be constantly refreshed and replenished to replace those who are aging out of it.

If anything, the demand for STEM talent in our state will only grow, as evidenced by the HELIX, the New Jersey Health + Life Sciences Exchange under construction as part of the New Jersey Innovation Hub in New Brunswick. The Hub will bring together all parts of our innovation ecosystem in what will become a vibrant center of innovation and require a broad range of technical and scientific skills to be successful.

How will we meet the demands of a turbocharged innovation ecosystem that embraces not only research & development, but also many other areas such as manufacturing, diagnostics and the supply chain? We need to capture the imagination and enthusiasm about STEM fields of large numbers of our students while they’re in secondary school (or even earlier), and then sustain that excitement as they move on to higher education or technical training programs.

To achieve this, however, we need to keep our students here. New Jersey has long had a student outmigration imbalance, annually sending a very large number out of state for their postsecondary education, many of whom don’t return afterward. This poses the risk of a true STEM “brain drain” that, combined with attrition in the technical and scientific workforce, threatens New Jersey’s global life sciences leadership as the “medicine chest of the world.”

That’s where all three sectors comprising our innovation ecosystem (private, academic and government) will need to step up. If we want our state to remain a global medical innovation leader in the face of stiff competition from many quarters, those institutions will have to do even more together to devise an integrated strategy of investments, incentives and rewards to educate, train and keep in New Jersey our STEM students on their journey to becoming our state’s STEM workforce of tomorrow.

Dean Paranicas is the CEO of the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey; Anthony Cicatiello is the president of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey.