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The talent and tenacity of immigrants can help drive the life sciences industry into the future, if we have the will and the wisdom to encourage it.
More than a third of “innovators” in the US as defined by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation-individuals who have won national awards for inventions; filed for patents in IT, life sciences, or materials sciences; or filed for patents for large advanced-technology companies-are immigrants. Almost 30% of all college-educated workers in science and engineering occupations in the US are foreign-born. And where I live, the biotech hub of Boston, 27% of all workers ages 25 to 64 are immigrants. By industry, 34% work in computers, engineering, and science; 43% in healthcare support; and 31% are doctors, dentists, and pharmacists, according to a recent study by American Community Survey cited in The Boston Globe.
These numbers point to why immigrants and immigration should be more important for leaders in the healthcare and bioscience fields nationally. Of course, having a strong regulatory framework, evolved pricing models across the entire supply chain, and innovative R&D are critical. But immigration is often entirely missing from the national life sciences conversation. Separate from any humanitarian or security-based/political arguments, I believe immigration must become a part of the national life sciences conversation because of the practical reality that the industry needs as many of the very best, the most driven, and the most innovative people with new ideas we can find to provide patients with the level of care that we’re always promising.
I fully support the existing consensus that increasing STEM education and diversity in our C-level leadership teams both play critical roles in the future of our industry. I have three children under the age of five, and I know part of the solution is continuously investing for the future and improving our school systems to support STEM in general, and for young girls like my daughter in particular. Building more diverse points of view on boards is also crucial. But, bottom line, immigration deserves a seat at that table as well. The innovative life science company/sector that supports immigrants’ needs and advocates on their behalf-that lets them loose to think and do and create-will, in my opinion, out-produce and out-earn the innovative pharma company that doesn’t do those things, over the long term.
If part of your job description is to get more innovative medicines invented, approved, or commercialized, and increase the odds that we’ll find more cures for more diseases, immigration policy should be on your agenda, or you could already be behind.
It’s not just about immigration of the highly trained and specialized talent, either. Look around your company, your neighborhood, the businesses you patronize. Who are the food service employees, the construction workers, the personal care and healthcare support providers? Who are the people doing backbreaking and exhausting labor for very little money? To a striking degree, they are immigrants. The child of the woman who cleans your office every night might just discover the drug that saves your life in 30 years.
It’s our responsibility as an industry to improve the quality of care for patients around the world at the fastest possible rate, day after day and year after year. That is how pharma companies earn the right to continue to exist and thrive. If we are to achieve that task, we must not limit ourselves to only being advocates for our patients or our regulatory or R&D prowess, or even ourselves. Patient advocacy will always and should always come first. But we must also be advocates for the people who will help us achieve that task tomorrow, and next year, and in five years, and in 30 years.
Those people might be nearby, or they might be thousands of miles away, in an obscure village in a developing country. They might be well-educated and motivated and aiming for a work visa to the US, or they might be struggling to escape the worst kind of poverty and despair. Or they might not even have been born yet. But wherever they are, it’s past time for us as an industry to speak out loud for those people, those immigrants who-combined with the powerful engine of American innovation and ingenuity-will drive us to a healthier future if we let them. Not because it may be the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. Sometimes right and smart, as it happens, may just be the same.
Mark Rus is Group Vice President and Head of Neuroscience at Shire, based in Boston, MA. He also serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Waltham, MA, and other local philanthropic organizations. Rus is a 2017 Pharmaceutical Executive Emerging Pharma Leader.