Speeches & Presentations

STEM Saves Lives
STEM Saves Lives Event, Sponsored by PhRMA and U.S. News & World Report

John C. Lechleiter, Ph.D.

Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer — Eli Lilly and Company

January 22, 2014

Washington, DC

Thank you, Brian. And good morning, everyone, and thanks for being here.

I’m delighted to be part of this program on why the STEM fields are essential for our nation’s 21st century industries – and for our future.

While today you’ll hear a lot about the importance of STEM to the biopharmaceutical industry, the underlying issue is broader – and urgent: the real danger that we’re losing what has been America’s greatest competitive advantage: our genius for innovation.

Let me begin by reminding us all that America is the inventing nation.

Innovation is part of our country’s DNA – all the way back to our founders, whose ranks included inventors like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and who set about inventing a new kind of nation.

With a long-range plan that included taming a good chunk of the continent, Americans explored every frontier – producing inventions to help conquer time and space: wagon trains and steam locomotives gave way to cars, airplanes, even rockets, as well as movies and television, computers and phones and now iPhones.

Along with exploring geographical frontiers, we also began mapping human biology, producing medicines and medical technology that conquered many diseases and alleviated others – extending life spans, enhancing health, and creating new industries along the way.

Here’s an interesting fact: since the Nobel Prize was established in 1901, there have been just over 1,000 Prizes awarded. The United States – with 5 percent of the world’s population – accounts for 347 of them – about one-third. That’s nearly three times that of the country in second place – the UK, with 120.

I would argue it’s innovation – that sprang in large part from broad education and the STEM fields we’re discussing today – that made the 20th century the American century – marked by a steady growth in jobs, rising standards of living, and longer, healthier lives for our people.

Folks, for the 21st century to be another American century, we must reinvigorate the skills that fuel discovery and innovation.

I’ve been asked to kick off our dialog by sharing what it was that sparked my own love of science and how it became my life’s calling.

I developed a passion for chemistry at an early age. I participated in science fairs and had two great high school teachers who had a passion for teaching chemistry and physics.

In 1971, I enrolled at Xavier University to pursue a degree in chemistry, and again, I had some excellent professors who inspired me.

Between my junior and senior year in college, I did a summer internship at the University of Minnesota doing lab-based chemistry research. I got really turned on by it and got excited about that work.

By the time I was a senior I decided to pursue organic chemistry – natural products chemistry, in particular – which is trying to come up with new ways to make molecules in nature. I had a professor at Xavier who was also a research manager at Procter and Gamble, and he encouraged me to pick the best graduate school to continue my work.

So I chose Harvard; I was fortunate to get in; and I did my graduate work there in organic chemistry.

When I was finishing up my degree, I started interviewing for jobs, and the place that stood out was Eli Lilly and Company.

When I first visited Lilly in 1978, I could feel the excitement about the work that was underway there in R&D. I liked the people; I connected with them from the very first time we met. They were not only friendly and open and team players, but they were interested in science and passionate about what they did.

As I recall, I defended my Ph.D. on a Friday and started work at Lilly the following Monday.

That was in 1979. I started out with Lilly as a senior organic chemist, working in the labs. I’d only been at Lilly a few years when I had an opportunity to move into research management. It was a tough decision; I liked what I was doing in the labs and enjoyed my colleagues. And I knew if I joined management, there was likely no return.

Still, I took the plunge, and immediately I knew it was the right thing. Right away I could see how I could make an even greater impact by helping others to get their work done – it was very satisfying.

Then I moved up through a series of assignments with broader and broader responsibilities – many of them in the area of drug development – and I became Lilly’s CEO in 2008.

So, from a vantage of 30 or 40 years of experience, I can say with conviction that science still matters – to my life and my job, to the work of our company, and to the future of our country and our world.

Today, more than 7,600 scientists, physicians, engineers, statisticians and other talented individuals are working at 11 Lilly research and development sites around the world to solve some of the most stubborn diseases in neuroscience, cancer, diabetes, autoimmunity, cardiovascular disease and other areas.

I believe this is the most exciting period to be involved in drug discovery – with a deep pool of new scientific knowledge at our disposal, new tools that we can apply to our efforts, and extraordinary opportunities for collaboration among industry, academia, and government labs.

Yet, apart from our own industry or others that rely on STEM-trained individuals, there is another reason why science still matters. And that is that the discipline of science develops knowledge and skills that are critically important – not only to pharmaceutical R&D, but also to a whole range of roles in our complex and rapidly changing world.

Let me suggest just a few examples:

As scientists by training, we carry with us the ability to think critically. We’ve had to develop the skills necessary to identify, analyze, and solve problems – expertise that will always be in hot demand in any enterprise.

Scientists also understand the importance of data in guiding decision making. We’re particularly adept at transforming data into knowledge and using data to generate new hypotheses. This keeps the gears of innovation turning.

In addition, the discipline of science teaches us to appreciate and master complexity, a quality that helps us avoid oversimplifying complex matters, on the one hand, or being overwhelmed by them, on the other. That’s a key asset in dealing with any modern institution.

So, while training in science is essential in a business like making medicines, it also helps prepare us for a wide range of careers well beyond the lab.

And this is why it’s time to take our concerns about STEM education in our country beyond rhetoric. Our children’s futures depend on it.

Folks, these are the future scientists we’ll need to build the next generation cars and power plants and semiconductors, and to discover new treatments and cures for our toughest medical problems.

Broad understanding of math and science is essential, first of all, so that young people across our society have an opportunity to participate in the high-tech economy of the future. Further, as the technology sector grows, and my own Baby Boom generation retires and shortages emerge in particular fields, we will need a large cohort with basic scientific skills to prepare to fill these jobs.

Meeting these needs will require continued significant attention to improving K-12 science and math education across our country, and I believe that both the public and private sectors must be involved.

I know John Castellani is going to discuss our industry’s collective efforts, but let me give you a couple examples of what Lilly is doing to remove the mystery around STEM and add some enthusiasm – and fun – to help spark a community of future scientists.

I know from my own experience that a great teacher can make a powerful difference in lives of children. So we’re supporting several programs that are designed to get high-performing teachers into the classroom.

For example, we’re funding a program at Purdue University to change STEM teacher education from a model of instruction in specific subject areas to one in which teachers learn to integrate science inquiry, technological design, and mathematical analysis.

And we’re strong supporters of programs such as Teach for America and the New Teacher Project to place talented people in hard-to-fill math and science classrooms serving our most at-risk students.

We’re also funding in our home state the Indiana Science Initiative – or ISI. The ISI focuses on younger children – kindergarten through 8th grade – and is built around a hands-on, inquiry-based learning curriculum designed to involve and excite kids about science and math. Nearly 2,000 teachers and more than 50,000 students are involved.

What’s exciting is that the 10 public schools that have participated in ISI for two full years have improved performance … surpassing the state average on the most recent statewide science test.

We also get Lilly employees involved in our STEM efforts. For example, we recently established what we call the Lilly Science Coach program, where Lilly scientists are assigned to specific teachers to help do hands-on science and serve as role models for students. We started with 50 coaches in the 2011/12 school year and expanded it to 140 last year.

This work is important at a fundamental level because the future of our company and industry depends on well-trained scientists. We’d like to see more kids choose to pursue STEM careers – especially women and minority group members who don’t always have the same opportunities to practice science and understand how exciting it can be … and have doors open for them.

But this work is important to the future of our country, as well. Over the past century, on a foundation of science and the other STEM fields, the U.S. built the strongest economy the world has ever seen and extended life expectancy by an astonishing two-thirds.

Sustaining that progress means nothing less than an all-out effort to revitalize STEM education in our country – something we hope to explore further during the remainder of today’s program.

Thank you.

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