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Wednesday: Brain drain?

This article from the NYTimes should get some attention.  It’s about an awards program from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The awards are given to foreign born scientists who study here in the US and then return to their home countries.  The nation with the highest number of recipients this year?  China.:

China’s government has thrown billions in recent years into building a top-notch research establishment, hoping to keep its best scientists working here and lure back those who are abroad.

Now comes a hint that that effort is beginning to pay off.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious research foundations, announced Tuesday that it washonoring 28 biomedical researchers who studied in the United States and then returned to their home nations. Each will receive a five-year research grant of $650,000.

Seven — more than any other nation — are from China.

“They’re incredibly energetic, extremely smart, highly productive and accomplished,” Robert Tjian, president of the institute, said of the Chinese winners in a telephone interview. The 28 are receiving the institute’s first International Early Career Scientist awards.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked with Chinese scientists.  The cream of the crop came to study here in the last couple of decades and while some of those scientists are simply good, some are really top notch.  This is probably the case with every country’s academic superstars but China has been ferocious about developing their talent.

But here’s where the changes in our American culture are going to bite us in the ass.  It used to be that when Chinese scientists came here, they were reluctant to return home.  Not any more.  And it’s not homesickness that is driving them.  It’s all related to how the money has dried up in research here in the US:

“Young people go where they can flourish the best,” he said. “And those countries have been able to attract young scientists trained in the U.S. to go back.”

“That’s a big hurdle. It used to be that people thought people came here and never went back. But I think now that is starting to change.”

Some of the award winners agreed. “I think it’s very obvious in recent years, and we’re very happy to see that,” Wang Xiaochen, a former doctoral student at the University of Colorado who is now at Beijing’s National Institute of Biological Sciences.

While many if not most Chinese doctoral students who choose to remain in the United States after their studies, she said, in China, “I don’t have to apply for a grant,” while in the United States “the funding situation already is very tough.

I think I’d have opportunities, but I’d have to spend a lot of time applying for funding. Here, I don’t have to apply for my own funding. So it’s an easy decision for me,” she said.

This is the common complaint I am hearing.  There’s very little grant money and what there is takes a lot of tedious, time wasting paperwork to acquire.  And then there’s the political aspect of getting grant money.  I would wager to guess that most scientists are not particularly good at the kind of salesmanship that is required to constantly beg for money.  And that’s a problem if you have an area of research that doesn’t respond well to interruptions and postponements.

But it’s not just the academic/government grant area that is suffering.  Small start up biotechs are frequently faced with some stark choices.  Take the example of Alnylam that Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline posted about last week:

The news is that Alnylam, the RNAi company just down the street from where I’m writing, is cutting about a third of its workforce to try to get its best prospects through the clinic. This is a familiar story in the small-pharma world; there’s often money to try to get things through the clinic, or to pay everyone in the earlier-stage R&D – but nowhere near enough money to do both. There are companies that have gone through this stage several times, sometimes rehiring the same people when the money began flowing again.

So, you can have early stage research or clinical trials.  But you can’t have both.  This is really dangerous for Alnylam because if their best prospects get crushed in clinical trials, and this happens a lot, they won’t have much to fall back on because they’ve had to cut back on their R&D staff.  This is just an example of what small biotechs are facing all over the country.  The result is that scientists bounce from job to job, coast to coast.  The pay is not as good as it used to be, benefits are skimpier and when the money runs out in a year or so, you have to find a new job.  Where are you supposed to live?  Can you afford a family if you are living a precariat existence?  And what’s going to happen when you are required to pay health insurance premiums to private insurance companies without any attempt at cost control?  The costs to the individual researcher is going to continue to rise with no stability in their work or domestic life. Is this any way to treat people who take the toughest majors in college?

Once again, I have to caution politicians and CEOs who think this is a good way to run research.  It’s extremely counterproductive.  Research frequently requires long periods of continuous study and work.  There are high start up costs associated with equipment and reagents.  Biotech is not like Silicon Valley because microchips follow predictable physical laws.  Cells do not.  It’s great for China that it’s starting to invest heavily in it’s scientists but it’s still going to take that country many years to figure out how to crank out new discoveries that will pass the FDA’s rigorous safety standards.  It’s hard, hard work even for the brilliant.  And then there are the scientists who did not graduate from prestigious universities.  With the number of discoveries we are making in biology these days, there is more than enough work for all of us but without money, those of us with the ability and inspiration but not the opportunities are wasted.  You never know when one of your well trained staff is going to notice something or makes that extra compound that makes a billion dollars a year.  It happens all of the time and it doesn’t take a Harvard educated PhD to do it.  It does take a place to work, money to pay the bills and sufficient time to run the experiments.

If we don’t start putting money into this country’s scientific human infrastructure, it’s going to be gone.  And don’t anyone buy that crock of BS about companies that want to hire high tech but can’t find educated personnel.  There are about 100,000 of us sitting on our asses right now who can’t get employers to hire us.  As one former colleague said, “They want someone right out of school with 25 years of experience.”  In other words, the MBAs seem to think this is so easy that anyone can do it.  It’s merely a series of tasks that can be pharmed out to any sufficiently trained research labtech at a CRO, right?  Sort of like ordering parts for a car.  They couldn’t be more wrong.

So far, the only barrier to having full employment of scientists is that companies want to sit on their cash in the hopes of driving wages down and that government is being incredibly stingy.  You can’t make a life on $37K a year after spending most of your adult life studying.  And some of these companies are creating their own finance problems by locating themselves in the most expensive places in the country to work and live.  But there’s no getting around the fact that research is expensive no matter where you do it and that it takes a long time and investment in people for it to pay off.  Pay us or lose us.

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3 Responses

  1. The MBA is basically BS, and the MBA holders got their jobs through connections and arse-kissing, so they don’t understand that some jobs require actual knowledge of objective facts.

    Too few members of our upper classes understand what those class traitors Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt understood–that the unregulated profit motive tends to become its own worst enemy.

  2. I think it is not really clever for US,the lagrest debtor to Communist China,to give any money to Chinese scientists to do research in China,whose government and people have openly declare their desire to bury USA.

    Good luck to your charity,but as Asian who suffer because of present communist China government,I feeel sad.

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