11 Life Science Skills You’ll Need in 2020

11 Life Science Skills You'll Need in 2020

July 20, 2017
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

However old you are, no matter what your education level or current employment scenario—college student, graduate student, post-doc, research scientist—take a moment and envision trying to do your present job...in 1986.

Internet? Nope.

Personal computers? Yes, but they were very expensive, fairly slow, with little memory and not a ton of software written for them.

No cell phones in any practical sense.

And for the life scientist—polymerase chain reaction (PCR) had only been developed three years before and it wasn’t terribly widespread. There was no Human Genome Project, no widespread gene sequencing, etc.

Fact is, technology changes things and it’s often disruptive. It wasn’t really all that long ago that if you talked about an “app” they probably thought you were applying for a job.

Most futurists and trend watchers feel that the near-future’s disruptive technology will be artificial intelligence, big data analysis and robotics. But just as likely, there will be something that comes out of nowhere like a rogue asteroid that few, if anybody, saw coming.

So let’s take a look at what some futurists think will be key skills that you’ll need for 2020 and beyond. You might note that some haven’t changed a bit from the present.

1. Complex Problem Solving.

Because our problems aren’t getting any simpler and even with artificial intelligence and big data—maybe because of AI and big data—someone who can analyze and take apart complex problems and develop and implement effective solutions is going to be a very valuable person. Mark McCormack, writing for the HR Zone, noted, “A report from the World Economic Forum called ‘The Future of Jobs,’ which surveyed executives from more than 350 employers across nine industries in 15 of the world’s largest economies, uncovered the top 10 skill sets respondents said will be most in demand by 2020. Whilst the list includes skills like cognitive flexibility and negotiation skills, the one in poll position was the ability to problem solve, with 36 percent of all jobs across all industries expected to require complex problem-solving abilities as a core skill by 2020.”

This certainly hasn’t changed in the life sciences or any technical field.

2. Judgment and Decision Making.

In the World Economic Forum surveys, this ranked eighth in 2015, but is predicted to be seventh by 2020. It is considered a “system skill,” which means being able to analyze data and use it to make decisions. Cadie Thompson, writing for Business Insider, said, “As organizations increasingly collect more data, there will be a greater need for employees who have the ability to analyze data and use it to make decisions.”

In biopharma, big data is the tech to watch, as data scientists work to make sense of reams and reams of genomic data, patient clinical data, population trends, and molecular and chemical structures. Having the data and organizing it is one thing; being able to identify the significance of a pattern is another.

3. Digital Literacy.

The world has gone digital, and whether we like it or not, computers and the Internet often shape and define our lives. On the one hand, software programs and apps are increasingly being developed to be user-friendly. On the other hand, understanding technology, how it works, how to use it, how it can be applied, and customizing it to your needs will increasingly be a needed skill.

Crowdsourcing has become an interesting component of drug development. In 2011, players in an online game called Foldit, created an accurate 3D model of the M-PMV retroviral protease enzyme on the game. Prior to that, researchers had spent 15 years unsuccessfully trying to figure out that structure. They followed that up the next year by redesigning a protein that increased its activity by more than 18 times.

4. Interpretation and Communication Skills.

Ever had a friend or family member—or yourself—try to self-diagnose themselves on WebMD? How often do they think their indigestion is stomach cancer or some rare African disease they discovered during their online search?

As personalized medicine grows and affects healthcare, the drug industry, the insurance industry and a fair amount of the retail industry—as well as healthcare and fitness-related apps in the tech industry—are going to have a growing need for people with the skills to place all that data into context, interpret it, and communicate it to specific audiences.

5. Empathy.

IBM Watson Health is a pretty amazing thing and there’s very little doubt that there will be more and more usage of AI to diagnose illnesses. At the same time, it’s the human interaction that does and will continue to make medicine work. Being able to empathize with patients and people is going to continue to be a valuable skill and commodity. IBM Watson Health is not quite human—yet.

6. Creativity.

This has moved up from the tenth position for 2015 to the top three for 2020. Thompson writes, “With the onslaught of new technologies, creative people will be in demand to figure out ways to apply the new technology and create new products and services.”

7. Change Management.

A skillset often in demand in upper management, as more and more disruptive technologies arrive, people able to manage that change will be in demand. Cadie Thompson, writing for Business Insider, notes, “Industries ripe for disruption will also need a new type of senior manager to help companies navigate the rough waters of change…. Industries that will need these new types of senior managers include media, entertainment, and information, according to the [World Economic Forum] report.” And, of course, healthcare, biopharma and medical devices.

8. Regulatory and Government Relations.

Thompson notes, as traditional automakers and tech companies work to develop driverless cars, they’re also employing people to work with government regulators. Now consider the current political issues concerning drug pricing, President Trump’s proposed changes to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the ongoing attempts to (sort of) repeal and replace Obamacare. In the life sciences, medical device industry, and biopharma, people who are skilled and knowledgeable about the regulatory landscape will find themselves—so to speak—in the driver’s seat.

9. Entrepreneurship.

Certainly anyone who follows the life sciences—or BioSpace, for that matter—is aware that academic researchers are quick to take a discovery and form a biotech company. But running a biotech takes business skills. Given that we are now in what is dubbed a “gig economy,” understanding how business works is a skill that life scientists are increasingly being called upon to have. Antonia Cusumano, people & organization leader at consulting firm PwC told Fast Company, that even if you’re working for someone else, a better understanding of how the business works is desirable. “It’s how the millennial generation has been raised. They are more in tune to collaborate. They know how to do project-based work and move quickly, which I think is inherent in today’s economy.”

10. People Management.

Vivien Luu, writing for Career FAQs, says, “Irrespective of how many jobs get automated and how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, employees will always be a company’s most prized resource. Human beings are more creative, better at reading each other, and able to piggyback off each other’s ideas and energy. But being human also means that we get sick, we get demotivated, and we get distracted. So it’s vital that in the future, managers and team leaders know how to motivate their teams, maximize their productivity and respond to their needs.”

11. Adaptability.

Perhaps this falls into the category of creativity, but it’s worth noting that it’s a big world with a variety of economies. Not every place is able to work with the best, most expensive, cutting-edge technology. Several years ago, The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists published an article submitted by several clinical geneticists in Pakistan. Unable to afford digital imaging systems already in use in many countries around the world to capture and manipulate images of chromosomes, they had adapted a system using a digital camera and Adobe Photoshop. In comparison to the $20,000-plus imaging systems, it was a stroke of genius. In biotech startups, although there’s often a reliance on the millions of dollars of venture capital, adapting to the technology you can afford and being creative may very well be a key skill in 2020 and beyond.

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