Analogies between pharmaceutical development and education

In “Research Universities and Big Pharma’s Wicked Problem,” neuroscientist Regis Kelly draws comparisons from the manufacture of biofuels to the development of new pharmaceuticals, suggesting that both are

a “wicked” problem, defined conventionally as a problem that is almost insoluble because it requires the expertise of many stakeholders with disparate backgrounds and non-overlapping goals to work well together to address an important society problem.

He then critiques the pharmaceutical industry for its imprecise knowledge, poor outcome measures, and lack of theoretical grounding:

The key issue is that we are far from having biological knowledge at anywhere close to the precision that we have engineering knowledge. We cannot generate a blueprint specifying how the human body works. … The pharmaceutical industry usually lacks good measures of the efficacy of its interventions. … We also lack a theory of drug efficacy.

His recommendations for improvement target the above weaknesses, in addition to endorsing more collaboration between researchers, engineers, and practitioners:

The pharmaceutical industry needs a much more precise blueprint for the human body; greater knowledge of its interlocking regulatory systems; and accurate monitors of functional defects. It needs clinical doctors working with research scientists and bioengineers.

If we in the education field continue to seek analogies to medicine, then we should heed these criticisms and recommendations. We too need more precise understanding of the processes by which students learn, greater knowledge of how those systems interact, and better assessment of skill and understanding. We also need closer collaboration between educational researchers, learning-environment designers, school administrators, and teachers.

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About Ming Ling
I’m an educator and researcher (trained as a cognitive scientist) who is passionate about understanding and improving how people learn. In my professional and personal lives, I seek to integrate research on learning with real-life practices that actually make a difference in how learning happens.

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