I've got just one word for you kid: plastics.

Okay, I've actually got a lot of words: chemistry, bioscience, genetic engineering, pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, nanotechnology… the list goes on and on. We've come a long way from the early days of research and development, from the primitive early 20th century laboratories of pioneers like Marie Curie - the discoverer of radium. She opened up the frontiers of human knowledge, helped introduce the X-ray machine and made the first radiation therapies for cancer possible. Ironically, her discoveries cut her life short because radiation was so poorly understood in her day.

Today, on the edge of the 21st century, we are dependent on science for everything from the most mundane everyday items to the most fantastic innovations. Canadians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, at least in part due Canada's hard-working researchers. Indeed, Canada's laboratories have been world leaders for decades. It was a Canadian research team that discovered insulin, and six Canadians have won Nobel prizes for chemistry or medicine - four in the last twenty years.

But it goes farther than that. You hold the work of scientists, researchers, technicians, and technologists in your hands every time you take a sinus decongestant or a headache tablet. You can find their efforts in everything from water-resistant clothing to low-emission gasoline and calorie-free soft drinks.

It is here, in the realm of everyday life, that the laboratory's impact is felt most profoundly. If we (arguably) live the good life, it's because we live in an age when ideas regularly become reality and formulas become products. In our science-dependent world, the laboratory is just one part of the production process and, as production grows, so do the labs.

The products of labs - like plastics - are everywhere from food packaging to artificial heart valves. We can't get enough of it and, in Canada, the plastics industry alone grew from $1.89 billion in 1984 to $3.5 billion in 1997. The chemical industry is also a giant, producing products as diverse as pesticides, cleaning solutions, adhesives on the back of sticky notes, and adhesives that hold wings on jumbo jets. The widespread use of chemicals is not without controversy, but many would argue that the invention of such basic products as laundry detergent and refrigerants radically changed society forever.

Other research-intensive industries have experienced equally phenomenal growth. Since Ottawa passed the Patent Drug Act of 1992, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have gone through the roof. When geneticists in Scotland successfully cloned a sheep, it became clear that there was almost nothing that science could not do. Cloning and genetic engineering have since become controversial issues of public policy, stirring heated debate across society.

Research is finding ever-better ways to cure disease and make life easier, and the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association of Canada estimates that the industry will spend more than $3 billion per year on research alone by the year 2000, up from $620 million in 1996. That research, however, requires skills and manpower, and Canadian chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology firms have an insatiable hunger for skilled workers. Pharmaceutical company employment alone increased by 23 percent between 1988 and 1996, but even that growth rate has been insufficient to meet current needs.

The simple fact is that there is a severe and pressing skills shortage in Canadian research-intensive industries. They have grown so quickly and their research and innovation have so rapidly accelerated that there just aren't enough people for all of the positions that need to be filled. Some 224 Canadian biotechnology companies employed 11,000 people in 1996. That year, a survey found that these companies expected to add a total of 4,000 scientific, technical, management, and marketing jobs by the year 2000.

This trend is expected to increase steadily into the 21st century. Experts agree that biotechnology won't just be one of the leading industries of the dawning century, it will be the leading industry. The start made with cloned sheep, transgenic goats, and miracle drugs that can control and perhaps even cure this century's most devastating plagues, will lead to innovations that may unlock the secrets of life itself. Laboratory technicians and technologists will be at the forefront of the innovations in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and chemistry that will define the coming century. Far removed from the media cliché of the scheming mad scientist, the laboratory will be the workplace of the 21st century. It is there that you will find the careers of the future.