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Electronic Journal of Biotechnology

versión On-line ISSN 0717-3458

Electron. J. Biotechnol. v.5 n.2 Valparaíso ago. 2002


EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 2002 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Academic Manpower Training Policy in Israel in the Area of Biotechnology

Shlomo Herskovic
Deputy Director General for Planning and Information
Planning and Budgeting Committee
Council for Higher Education
Tel: 972 02 5679917
Fax: 972 02 5679945


The biotechnology industry is still in a fledgling state characterised as yet by many start-ups and small firms alongside a few large pharmaceuticals, whose activities are concentrated primarily in the pre- and early commercialisation stages of industrial production. If manpower shortages exist at present, they are often in auxiliary areas of expertise that are of critical importance at these early stages of development, such as IP, licensing, transfer of technology, marketing, finance or in newly emerging multi-disciplinary fields for which structured training programs are not yet common, such as bioinformatics. This situation could, however, change quickly and dramatically if and when the long overdue biotechnology revolution becomes a reality. One need only look at the situation in the ICT industry where the chronic shortage of computer scientists and engineers was until recently the major obstacle to its continued meteoric expansion, to glimpse what may be in store for the biotechnology industry only a few years down the road.

It is of significant importance, therefore, for national Science and Technology policy makers to assemble information on the emerging trends of academically trained new entrants in the labour market that are potentially suitable for employment in the core technical skill areas of biotechnology together with data on the manpower demands of industry. The value of these national figures would be greatly enhanced if they could be benchmarked against comparable figures in other countries at a similar level of development.

Supply and demand estimates for Israel

The Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education is an independent buffer body that is involved with the planning of higher education and is solely responsible for the allocation of public funds to institutions of higher education in Israel. In light of recent developments in biotechnology in Israel, a subcommittee in the area of biotechnology was set up to promote the advancement of this field within the framework of our responsibilities and activities. The scope of the committee's terms of reference include: the development of policy guidelines for the approval of new academic programs relevant to biotechnologyi; evaluation of the state of the physical infrastructure (facilities, equipment) for teaching and research in this area in the institutions of higher education; and the evaluation of existing mechanisms for the transfer of research results from the universities to industry. This article refers only to the first of these issues.

The first assignment that this subcommittee took upon itself was to obtain a comprehensive and detailed picture of trends in student and graduate numbers in areas relevant to biotechnology. Based on the subject field classification used in Israel, a list of five core fields of direct relevance to biotechnology was assembled as representative of the potential supply of academic manpower in this areaii .

These fields are:

1. the biological sciences (including M.Sc. and Ph.D. students in medicine);
2. the agricultural sciences;
3. biotechnology engineering;
4. clinical lab sciences
5. pharmacy (M.Sc. and Ph.D. students only);

The relevant figures for each of the five core subject fields for the period 1990-2001 were then gathered and analysed. Figure 1 shows the total number of graduates in all of the core subject fields combined for the 1990's and our projection of graduates through 2004. As can be seen, the total number of bachelor's degree recipients is expected to more than double from 610 in 1990 to 1,395 in 2004, where the major growth areas are the biological sciences and biotechnology engineering, especially in recent years. Also worth noting is the expected increase from approximately 200 PhD's annually throughout the 1990's to 350 by 2004.

The supply side of the analysis also took account of the plethora of new specialized multidisciplinary programs in bioinformatics and biotechnology submitted by institutions of higher education (universities and colleges), primarily at the bachelor's degree level, for the approval of the Council for Higher Education. These programs are in response to the more specialized demands of students in this area.

Information on the demand side was, as could be expected for such a young industry, fragmentary and lacking necessary detail. According to the government established National Committee for Biotechnology, Israel's biotechnology industry in 2000 comprised 160 companies, employing 4,000 workers and with estimated sales totalling $800 million. No data are available on the breakdown of employees according to type or academic degree level. The consensus of opinion of experts in the field, corroborated by some small sample surveys performed on the industry, was that the vast majority of the scientific and technical positions were manned by personnel with post-graduate degrees (M.Sc. or Ph.D.), while those few workers holding only a bachelor's degree in a relevant technical field were engaged in junior positions as laboratory technicians, etc. The Central Bureau of Statistics is in the midst of organizing a detailed statistical survey of the biotechnology industry, which should fill in many of the blank spaces in our present data set.

With regard to the future, our Committee took note of the forecast contained in a recently completed joint government and industry association funded report entitled "Realizing Our Potential - Israeli Biotechnology Strategy Project"iii , popularly known as the Monitor Report after the company that produced it. This influential report analysed Israel's potential in the field of biotechnology and provided a detailed proposal of governmental actions and policies to facilitate Israel's growth in this area. According to this study, the biotechnology industry in Israel should grow to 14,000 employees by 2010 and total sales of $3 billion. However, the inherent lack of reliability of such a forecast, together with the total lack of any details regarding the types of manpower that will be employed in this industry in 2010, marginalized the value of this forecast to our policy exercise to that of a signpost stating that the general trend for the future is upward.

The final element that was considered in our policy decision was the consensus opinion of experts that Israel has a significant pool of highly qualified postgraduates in fields relevant to biotechnology, who are presently employed in positions that under-utilize their capabilities, and who could move easily into more suitable and lucrative jobs in the biotechnology industry if and when the industry enters a stage of rapid manpower growth.

Academic manpower training policy

On the basis of the above analysis and upon due consideration of the severe data limitations of the present and future demand for academic manpower in the biotechnology industry, the Committee, in its recommendations to the Council for Higher Education, proposed that the guiding principle in evaluating and approving new undergraduate academic programs in the area of biotechnology should be to place primary emphasis on the academic and scientific quality of the programs rather than the quantity of graduates that they would provide to industry. The expected increases in graduates in the coming years shown in Figure 1 and based primarily on students who are already in higher education, together with the pool of highly qualified manpower mentioned above, who are already in the labor market, are more than sufficient to enable the small biotechnology industry to grow at a very quick pace over the coming years, without adding new programs and students to the system. We further recommended that the situation in the biotechnology industry be monitored constantly on the basis of improved and more detailed surveys than were performed in the past (such as that of the Central Bureau of Statistics mentioned above), so that this policy can be reviewed if and when early indications of emerging shortages become apparent. These policy recommendations were based in part on the lessons learned from our experiences with the ICT industry, where due to industry-perceived severe shortages of academically trained manpower that were stunting their ability to grow, the quantity of graduates became the major policy target, at times perhaps at the expense of the quality of the new academic degree programs that were approved.

In summation, there is no doubt, based on our analysis, that students in Israel sense the advent of the age of biotechnology. What is unclear at present is whether lucrative and challenging jobs will be waiting for them when they enter the labor market.

i In Israel, all new academic degree programs, including those proposed by established accredited institutions of higher education, require the approval of the Council for Higher Education before they can be opened.

ii For a brief description of how these fields were chosen see: Herskovic, Shlomo, "Academic Manpower and Training Data in Israel in the Area of Biotechnlogy", Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, Vol. 30, no. 2, 2002, pp. 126-127.

iii The full report can be downloaded from the internet site of the Israeli Ministry of Industry and Trade.

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