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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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May 26, 2010

"Better Educated" in China?

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Posted by Derek

The Boston Globe has an interview with James Foster, the CEO of Charles River Labs, about their acquisition of WuXi. It's an overview of the whole outsourcing/consolidation story in the industry, which will be familiar to readers here. But an e-mail pointed me to one particular quote:

“For some period of time, there’ll be a wage benefit to using Chinese labor,’’ Foster said. “The labor is plentiful, cheaper, and better educated than in the States. It pains me to say so, but it’s true.’’

I assume that it doesn't pain him so much to say that the labor is plentiful and cheaper - rather, it's the "better educated" part. And that pains me, too, to be honest. Is it true? I'm sure that opinions are going to vary widely on that question - I've sent an e-mail to the people at Charles River asking if Foster's willing to go into more detail.

Update: I've heard back from them; through a spokesperson, Foster declines to comment further, citing the demands on his time during the WuXi merger. Good thing the Globe was able to talk to him, I guess!

Comments (68) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. Mark on May 26, 2010 8:31 AM writes...

Better education for the price maybe?


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2. Ed on May 26, 2010 8:32 AM writes...

Maybe he meant it in the Stalinist sense - "Quantity has a quality all its own"

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3. fungus on May 26, 2010 8:34 AM writes...

More obedient?

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4. darwin on May 26, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

If better educated means mass printing of degrees available for the right price, then yes, better educated.

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5. HelicalZz on May 26, 2010 8:42 AM writes...

It could well be. How do you want to define 'educated'? Viewed from the right angle, I see that this post has a lot of synergy with the previous one on India's culture of reverence.

If educated means creative, innovative, and broadly skilled, then perhaps China is not as educated as the US. But, if the intent is to be educated for the task at hand, a more focused vocational training, then the statement may well ring true. I don't honestly know if that is correct, but there are likely some culture biases embedded in just asking the question.


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6. expharma on May 26, 2010 8:59 AM writes...

just take a look at where these people were educated.

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7. expharma on May 26, 2010 9:04 AM writes...

just take a look at where these people were educated.

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8. CroppyBoy on May 26, 2010 9:05 AM writes...

The question to ask is how well able is Mr Foster to assess the educational abilities of the staff at WuXi. Only a fraction will be english speaking and therfore able to be assessed directly, and then only in informal ways. There is probably some incentive on the part of WuXi to overstate the capabilities of their employees.

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9. Hap on May 26, 2010 9:06 AM writes...

If you take the top 0.1% of any group, it ought to look pretty good - since there are so many Chinese people, and probably a lot of chemists, and you get a significant portion of the top ones, they might very well be better educated then the people hired in the US (since US chemists are probably drawn from a more representative slice of their corresponding population). Also, the lack of more lucrative opportunities means that the top 0.1% of chemists in China might be better than the top 0.1% in the US, let alone the fraction of US chemists actually hired.

Of course, the rank-and-file of Chinese chemists may not be better than the US rank-and-file, and at the rate companies are going, that'll be all they'll have. Good luck with that.

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10. CroppyBoy on May 26, 2010 9:07 AM writes...

The question to ask is how well able is Mr Foster to assess the educational abilities of the staff at WuXi. Only a fraction will be english speaking and therfore able to be assessed directly, and then only in informal ways. There is probably some incentive on the part of WuXi to overstate the capabilities of their employees.

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11. RandChemist on May 26, 2010 9:21 AM writes...

It's a fairly strong statement to say the least.

To me, since there is a good amount unknown about the Chinese system, how do you begin to assess it? By publications? Patents? Number of Ph.D.'s? To me those metrics only tell part of the story. Especially since the US and China have remarkably different cultures.

I've run across some phenomenal Chinese chemists. I've also worked with some obedient hacks. It's a small sample size though, and only my own.

It takes all kinds and there are all kinds.

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12. anchor on May 26, 2010 9:39 AM writes...

In my years of experiences in pharmaceutical industry, I had in the past interacted with many friends of various nationalities. If anything, I have learnt this. The people from China are very hard working, strict disciplinarian and regimental in nature. They can hunker down and get the job done (can do several columns, prep TLC etc. in a single day that some of us can only envy). They are almost robotic. My interaction with people from India suggests to me that they can be very innovative but are lazy and lack discipline. As for my American colleagues they are more like Indians with some lackadaisical attitude as well. Any success will require all the measures discussed herein.

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13. wei on May 26, 2010 9:46 AM writes...

i think Chinese education has been doing terrible in physical education, communication education and psychological education. There has been no emphasis on intriguing the interest of students and asking the question: what do you want to do in the future?

I am not blaming this. Resources are much more scarce per capita in china than US. Education is tied to exams, and exams will decide how much resource you will get for the future.

as for "creative, innovative, and broadly skilled", I think the system just does not reward these abilities enough and we have little chance to demonstrate them. When there is a chance, things can go beyond your imagination. For example, adding melamine to milk to increase the nitrogen and fool the government QC tests

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14. CMCguy on May 26, 2010 9:48 AM writes...

Perhaps Foster is speaking to relative decline in Math and Science education in the US verses rest of the world that has occurred over the last few decades. I have no knowledge of what the average Chinese student is taught in these areas however have observed in North America spotty emphasis and teaching that seems to be fairly systematic in barely providing the basics. Although exceptions in teachers and schools/programs exist, thankfully to support those who do wish to pursue more advanced aspects, I view general deficiencies are present in a culture that proclaims to value science & math however appears to provide greater rewards and incentives to other occupations.

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15. MedChem on May 26, 2010 10:02 AM writes...

Well, as much as Americans would hate to believe. In physical sciences (chemistry, physics, and math), generally speaking your average Chinese student is much better educated than his American counterpart, from grade school all the way up to colleage. I'd go as far as to say that the depth of learning in the Chinese system is so far superior to the American system that these two are nowhere near being on the same level.

But, before you let your blood boil, there's a big but here. The advantage quickly vanishes as graduate school starts. The learning curve is so steep in American graduate schools (I can only speak for Chemsitry) that the Chinese advantage disappears after the 1st year of a good US chemistry PhD program.

And also, as someone else has pointed out, the Chinese education system over values physical sciences and does a terrible job at all other aspects of learning.

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16. billyziege on May 26, 2010 10:18 AM writes...

During my attempt to pursue theoretical high energy physics, a large portion of my graduate year came from the same university in China. Compared to my contemporaries, most of these students had been introduced to more physics and more mathematics and tended to perform better on tests. Having also pursued mathematics, I find that American's do not tend to have a very deep or broad exposure to this field and are socially discouraged from deepening and broadening themselves therein. Furthermore, most American students focus on what is required for their major and then take the "easy" electives to fill out their liberal arts and sciences education. I personally see fault with such thinking, and this thinking was reflected in my contempories' performances. However, this being said, the Chinese' good performance may have been confounded by their tendency to work together on examinations where we were expected to do our own work. Despite this issue, I'd still say that they had had a more serious pre-graduate experience compared to us Americans.

On the other hand, the Americans who stick with science seemed to be happier on average. A number of the Chinese students I talked with felt as if they had been forced into pursuing physics by their government. The American's main complaint was lack of knowledge. The Chinese governmental pressure, I believe, may partially manifest as a more dogmatic approach to science. However, I have also met a number of creative Chinese scientists since then who love what they do, so maybe these observations pertain only to that small group of Chinese students.

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17. Edward on May 26, 2010 10:26 AM writes...

In the narrow topic of outsourcing to China in the pharmaceutical industry, "plentiful" and "cheaper" definitely describe what's available. But concerning the individuals doing the work there that used to be done by individuals in the United States, they are definitely less educated and less knowledgeable and less creative. You pay less, but you get less.

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18. john on May 26, 2010 10:53 AM writes...

I had this thought. Maybe the definition of education, in the context of a modern, knowledge driven economy, is one that should be debated at the highest levels of policy maker. Thus new generations would better prepared for the new economy. Essentially graduate educations, along with the way MDs are being educated, has not changed in a long time. Maybe all these academic innovators should spend some time innovating in the class room as part of their jobs.

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19. Hap on May 26, 2010 11:04 AM writes...

#17: Do those advantages also exist wrt Europe? I was under the impression that European (German, particularly) high school and (general) undergrad was significantly more advanced than US schools, and yet I thought that their jobs were being outsourced as well. There, if European education were better, it would have to be a cost (and labor flexibility) advantage causing the outsourcing rather than an education difference.

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20. anam on May 26, 2010 11:11 AM writes...


This guy has decided to outsource labour to china, for the reasons of it being cheap there. Plentiful and 'better educated' are all the SPIN he is trying to put on the real story, in the first sentence.

It is always easier to justify to the public (not that, unlike in China or India, he has to fear the Govt or pitchfork/stone waving ex-employees in the USA) and simply looks more polished if he claims that he is not outsourcing to the cheap, but availing the services of a bunch of undiscovered geniuses.

It is like India's outsourcing industry, usually employing students from tier III or unranked colleges there, discovering that IITs of India have a good name in the USA, mostly thanks to the diaspora. There were only 5 a few years back. Thanks to some lobbying efforts and Govt support, the number has increased to 15 in five years and is stated to be 30 in the next 5, and renamed many other colleges to sound similar - NIT, IIIT, CIIIT, etc. This has increased to the level that every student out of high school is almost assured of an Engineering/IT admission in India these days. Makes it very easy to claim 'all our staff hold a bachelor degree in electronics or computer science'.

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21. silicon scientist on May 26, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

What Mr. Foster is relating is the new public perception, and it can be traced to the bad research behind "The Gathering Storm." That report has been giving American science (and scientists) a bad name for years while simultaneously hiding the fact that there's a glut of scientific talent in this country.

It's about time that industry, Congress, and the public is made aware that it's been fed a lot of hooey on this issue. Whatever good the "falling behind in science" meme did for increased federal spending is far outweighed by the diminished respect for American science its created.

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22. silicon scientist on May 26, 2010 11:24 AM writes...

A counter-point to the meme...

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23. Todd on May 26, 2010 11:41 AM writes...

I'm with comment #13, but I think the reasons for the difference in the quality of BS-level talent has to do with the way scientific education is structured in both countries. In China, scientific education is much more likely to be tied to either medical schools or the "post universities", which are the equivalent of American polytechnic institutes. On the flip side, in the US, it's not that difficult to go to school, major in a technical subject, take the bare minimum of courses and spend the rest of your time taking fluff classes. (We've all seen the Biology/History double majors.) Realistically, I would say the worst Chinese student is better than the worse American student to the point that the lower-tier American students pull the average down.

Also referring back to comment 13, I think that's what makes the huge difference in the quality of American post-grad students. I know that in China (as well as a number of countries), it's not that hard to move up the food chain into grad school, while in the US, a lot of the chaff gets knocked out.

Simply put, I think for a Charles River, who probably uses up a lot of BS-level scientists in their day to day work, they probably do get a better deal in China. For other companies, I'm not so sure. I think it's all a matter of figuring out the right mix.

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24. xfz on May 26, 2010 11:42 AM writes...

I generally agree with #14, #17 and #18’s observations, although I should remind that Chinese scientists who working in US pharmaceutical industry are also very creative and innovative.

I believe it is an unavoidable trend that China will have more and more “better educated” scientists in the future. About 25 years ago, only 2.5% lucky ones can access higher education, that includes university, community college or two-year program. Today, that number is over 60%. China has 1.3 billion people, so you can figure out how big China’s talent pool will be.

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25. xfz on May 26, 2010 11:52 AM writes...

I generally agree with Aanchor,Medchem & Billyziege's observations......(The rest of my comment is unchanged).

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26. toxchick on May 26, 2010 12:04 PM writes...

I suspect that he is not referring to the management level, but rather the technical staff. I would guess that a technical job at WuXi (dosing rats, prepping test articles) would attract BS or MS levels in China. At many CROs in the US, a BS is the top degree, except for a few Ph.D. Study Directors. Many of the technical staff have GEDs, high school degrees or sometimes Associates. I am not commenting on quality of work or intelligence. I have certainly known more than my share of useless Ph.D.s, and some really great people with Associates degrees.

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27. partial agonist on May 26, 2010 12:05 PM writes...

The link provided by #6 is revealing:

6 of 8 executives were trained in North America (75%)


17 of 23 managers (74%)

Maybe its the worker bees who are Chinese and received better educations in their homelands, but it isn't their bosses, their boss's bosses, or their boss's boss's bosses!

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28. expharma on May 26, 2010 12:20 PM writes...

wonder if we can justify the 'green house gases' produced with the shipment of compounds as a cost of buisness?

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29. Chinese American Scientist Business Woman on May 26, 2010 12:22 PM writes...

Well, I'm Chinese---grew up in Smalltown China and went to college in Beijing (followed by PhD in the US, and then jobs in science and business). I spent 22 years in China and 11 in the US---so can probably speak to this subject better than most (I hope). Here are my two cents:

First of all, there is no perfect education system, not even in the US. Having said that, I do believe the one in China has its advantages and disadvantages over the one in the US. Specifically, I think the Chinese system is better in the following ways:

1. Students are (in general) more hardworking. This is probably a result of the culture and history combined with today's reality. Chinese people have always valued education greatly, perhaps above everything else. If one asked any random chinese parent (educated or not, urban or rural), what's THE most important thing they wanted for their kids, they'd probably say "I want them to do well in school". People believe (and it's largely true anywhere in the world): if you do better in school, you will be better off later in life. It's been that way in China for thousands of years---even in the Confucious days government officials were selected through a rigorous exam system, and the only way to get ahead was by studying harder. In today's China the competition is only more fierce by many magnitudes. For example, the only way of getting into a decent college is by scoring high and beating millions of others on a standardized national test (well I'll touch on that point later). The acceptance rate of my alma mater (one of the best universities in China) was WAY less than ANY college in the US. I personally spent most of my highschool days preparing for this single test, not the prom. I constantly dreamed about going to my dream school, not being voted the prom queen (not that we had a prom anyway). In order to get accepted by a PhD program in the US, I had to compete with the American students. I studied the GRE day in and day out for 4 straight months (not a single day off), and ended up scoring 99th percentile in every category---I had hardly even practised reading/speaking English at all before that. I'm not trying to glorify myself, but just to illustrate a point: Chinese students (in general) work harder, because they have to. It's so engrained in them (us!), and they go onto become a more hardworking workforce. And that in and of itself, is worth a price premim, not discount, to any international employer in my opinion.

2. Chinese students are more "outward looking" than American ones. By that, I mean they are more aware of and have more exposure to what's around them internationally and work hard to adapt to that. How many Americans (except 2nd-generation immigrants) even try to study another language? Yet all Chinese students know too well that English is critical and spend a lot of time studying it. How many of you took WORLD history and geography classes in middle school?---we have 3 years of them, all mandatory too. In college we routinely used foreign textbooks---not just American ones, but also European ones---basically whatever the professors believed were the best. Even culturally, chinese students like to watch foreign movies, wear foreign brands, eat foreign foods. While excessive gravatation towards foreign stuff can also be dangerous, there IS something to be said about looking outward and preparing yourself for the WORLD, not just the country.

3. Chinese students build a more solid knowledge ground. I can say with confidence that an average Chinese graduate from middle school probably knows more about science and literature than an average american graduate from high school. In Chinese schools, classes are more rigorously (and rigidly--which is a downside) structured, such that you have to learn more stuff better and faster. For example, my high school classes included calculus and quantum physics, Confucious and Shakespear. Did yours?

There are many other points I can think of but these three are the most relevant in my view. Of course one disadvantage is that the system is so rigorous and rigid that there is less room (or time!) left for creativity, which is what I think the American students are much better at. Although one may make the argument that creativity outweighs everything else, I'd say that creativity built on a solid foundation is the best---which both countries need to get better at. Additionally, historically China hs significantly undervalued humanity majors such as law and economy---look no further than all the members in the current Chinese administration who are all engineers, in contrast to the likes of Clinton and Obama.

Now the Chinese government have realized these problems and are working hard to address them. Meanwhile I also hope that the American government, and more importantly the american people, can realize and appreciate that other countries/cultures can (and do) do better than us in some respects, and the only way to stay "the best" is by humbling ourselves and learning from them.

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30. processchemist on May 26, 2010 12:41 PM writes...

We're not in a knowledge driven economy, but in a financial economy backed by a little of techological hype and some legends (chinese world class technologists that cost 1/5 of their western counterparts).

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31. John on May 26, 2010 12:51 PM writes...

"It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he- with his specialized knowledge- more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and the community.....
.....Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included."
Albert Einstein
Education for independent thought, from the New York Times oct 5 1952.
some content skipped over

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32. aman on May 26, 2010 1:06 PM writes...

mostly agree with the previous poster (30/31), but disagree on the following points: I am not a born american, btw. but went to gradschool in US>

>>How many Americans (except 2nd-generation immigrants) ever try to study another language well?

Well, they do get the opportunity to learn several languages in school (french, spanish etc). And they do it out of interest, not necessity, unlike chinese students who have to learn English if they want to get out for studies etc.

>>It's so engrained in them (us!), and they go onto become a more hardworking workforce.

Yes, and while no one is questioning their hard-working nature, this preparation for exams becomes all-consuming. All they care about would be doing well in an exam, and the 'hard work' can just be rote preparation. If you do the past 10 years question papers well, you will probably do well in the exam tomorrow as well. Btw this is something that I have seen Chinese grad students in the US routinely do. Question is, can they approach an exam just based on the concepts they have learned and applied? Right, not all exams are designed in that manner, and even for the supposed competitive exams like GRA and GMAT, rote preparation by doing past questions will help

Now, while your english writing skills are certainly beyond reproach (I am leaving out accents, we all have our own), The majority of chinese students whom I have seen do not have any advanced skills in that area. Maybe they did not have time left over to work hard in that too, given that for anyone, time is indeed finite.

As for preparing themselves for the world, well, Americans of an earlier generation used to travel more etc, but face it, IN reality chinese students are NOT preparing for the world, they are just preparing for the USA. (how many chinese students know anything much about INdia? Africa? European countries *without* good universities? etc etc. As for Aemrican students, Granted, the typical American attitude, one of some barely disguised we-don't-need-you-and-I-don't-care- will not help them much longer, but as things stand, they do not need to be aware of much outside unless they have business interests in that part of the 'outside'.

Now, i agree that American system has a lot to improve if it wants to survive. First, the school culture has to change. The current culture encourages disdain against anyone who does not fit into the jock/sportstar/rockstar mould, and that will be the real undoing of science here in USA. Kids with some promise( and largely a fraction of immigrant kids) will not keep up the effort if they find that it only leads to them getting beaten up. Second thing is that the disastrous effects of teenage concerns taking centerstage - dating and prom being more a concern than SAT and college - will be another.

So, while stressing that doing well in some exams by rote preparation is not indicative of anything, I completely agree with the poster that creativity on solid foundation is the ticket. Even the most creative, genius kid will be no good if he has no knowledge of fundamentals and has to rely on his fingers to add, or her skills are mostly in the area of cutting up craft paper (unless, of course, that is the career chosen).
All that said, still, the periodic public revelations by some business leader about the discovery of geniuses hidden away in a cellar in a country which just happens to be ultra cheap is nothing other than hogwash.

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33. Anonymous on May 26, 2010 1:11 PM writes...


"For example, my high school classes included calculus and quantum physics, Confucious and Shakespear. Did yours?"

I'm not american and, yes, something like this (your classes for sure didn't include ancient greek, latin, non chinese philosophy). I entered at the university with about 35 other students in my class. At the end, only 8 obtained the degree. Currently, in my social context, an average academic