Eli Lilly’s chief executive has called for greater innovation and expressed concern about the level of science teaching in the US education system.

Speaking in Los Angeles, John Lechleiter said that “in the current challenging economic times, sustaining our nation's edge in innovation and improving our focus on medical innovation's richest resource – people – is imperative to achieving prosperity and health in the coming decade”. He added that “we tend to think of innovation in terms of technology, science, and labs but innovation is essentially the application of human ingenuity to improve human life”.

He went on to say that a broad understanding of maths and science is essential for young people to participate in the high-tech economy of the future but American students rank poorly against other countries. Mr Lechleiter called for "a common effort as a society to develop whole new generations of Americans with knowledge and skills in maths and science, a large pool from which great scientists and breakthrough ideas will emerge”.

Given this lack of homegrown talent, the Lilly chief expressed his concern over immigration policy. Noting that the very best scientists are needed in pharmaceutical research, many of the top candidates emerging from graduate schools in the USA are neither citizens nor permanent residents, and they run into visa problems.

He said that “we must fix the policies that are driving away talented people”, adding that “this does not require drastic changes, just a sensible increase in visas for these highly skilled immigrants and a shorter, simpler process to get a green card”. Mr Lechleiter dismissed the arguments that such policies take jobs away from Americans, saying “it surely beats the alternative…talented people returning to their native country or going elsewhere to start or help a foreign firm to compete against us”.

He also called for a long-term commitment “to steady federal research funding”, particularly for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other agencies that pursue and support basic research and train young scientists. Mr Lechleiter concluded by saying academic and government research has "historically operated synergistically with the private biopharmaceutical sector," and the “innovation engine works best when we're firing on all cylinders”.