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When I told you Research had left NJ, I wasn’t making it up

 

Hoffman-LaRoche Nutley, NJ- recently shuttered.

NPR ran a recent piece on the problem of ghost towns being left in the wake of the great pharma mergers and layoffs of the last 10 years.

The facility I worked at in Bridgewater, NJ closed in 2011.  I’m not sure they were able to find renters but the MBAs seemed to have a habit of overestimating what new tenants for labs space would be willing (or able) to pay.  The lab buildings I worked in were beautiful with lots of natural light but they were never full. The facility I worked at previously in Monmouth Junction, NJ was also abandoned for awhile but I had heard that there were some plans to lease it.  Or bulldoze it.  I can’t remember which.  I stand corrected.  Google maps says the site is “closed”.  That building was smaller and more contained.  It would have been perfect for a small biotech company on the rise.  It had a state of the art animal breeding facility and room for about 400 people. More than that makes it feel too cozy.

But as I wrote back in 2011, it is difficult to get funding for a startup.  The vulture capitalists like to see most of the work done before they commit their money.  Then there is the problem of finding money for equipment (this is cheaper due to the big pharmas auctioning off all their stuff), subscriptions to journals, buying expertise for robotic HTS assays, structural

The place where I spent the best years of my life

biology, specialized analytical chemistry and ADME analysis, and every other thing that a small biotech doesn’t have in its own arsenal.  A regular Joe researcher funding his own research will probably lose his house before the year is out.  So, he and his colleagues don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on lab space, which despite its abundance, is going to be expensive.

In the meantime, Big Pharma is counting on graduate students living on subsistence wages to pick up the slack on what are now reduced government grants.  It was hard enough to be a graduate student in Chemistry before the sequester.  Now, the money is much harder to come by.  For a person who may not get a decent paying job until he or she is almost 30, the prospects are bleak.

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

Funny how Paul Krugman doesn’t talk about this.  He’s living in the heart of what was Big Pharma territory and the desolation is hard to ignore.

Some of the lame excuses that Big Pharma gives for pulling out of NJ is that it’s too far from the City and the kids nowadays want to be right in the middle of some hot urban action, complete with expensive tiny apartments that they will have to share with roommates until they retire.  Also, Big Pharma has relocated to the coasts to be close to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Scripps.  That’s so they can share ideas in the areas where genomics and molecular biology are king.  But this is utter bullshit.  For one thing, if you are working in Cambridge, MA or San Francisco, you are precluded from talking about your work with anyone.  There’s no sharing going on in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.  It’s all proprietary and very hush, hush.  Your work won’t be published until the lawyers have taken out anything that’s remotely patentable.  It could be years before you can share your big breakthrough.

Plus, there is this new fangled device called the internet.  If I wanted to, I could use an online tool to order up a synthetic gene from California from the comfort of my backyard wisteria covered swing in Pittsburgh.  I can access thousands of journal articles, provided I had $33/electronic copy and could get over my impulse to strangle the ACS and Elsevier every time I had to do it.  I could attend meetings and conferences.  My work does not depend on my location.

And here’s one more reason why pulling out of NJ to go to Boston doesn’t make sense.  It’s fricking expensive.  If the MBAs were trying to save money, which is what they always claim is the reason for shuttering labs, why the hell would they relocate to some of the most expensive real estate in America??  Why not go back to the midwest where the mothballed labs are still cheap?  That’s where most of research was before the big mega mergers in the 90s brought everyone to the Northeast.  Cinncinnati, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor all had thriving research communities before the business people decided to manage things.  Or even Pittsburgh.  This place is hopping lately, it’s urban, housing is cheap and there’s plenty of mass transit.

And this is where I think we come to the crux of the matter.  The relocation is about what the business people want.  They don’t want to be stuck in dowdy, suburban NJ with the high property taxes and they can’t think past the rust belt image of the midwest.  It’s not glamorous enough for the people who consider themselves the culture of smartness.  Smartness demands that it hang around other smart people.  Maybe if the business types rub shoulders with the supersmart MIT researchers, they won’t feel like they sold out their biology degrees to become finance wizards?  Projection of sorts?  I can only guess.

It’s also easier to jettison your workforce if you claim you HAVE to move to stay competitive.  Yep, just cut those hundreds of thousands of experienced STEM workers loose when they are in middle age and have family responsibilities.  Leave them stranded in NJ while their property values sink and they are stuck peddling themselves as consultants from one poverty stricken startup after another.

This is no way to treat the people who brought you Lipitor, Effexor and Allegra.  And, yet, this is the way it’s going.  Big Pharma sees its future as chronic illness specialists.  They will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a drug that some people can’t live without and will expect insurance companies to pay for them.  Think of it as sponge from some Nathan Brazil Well World novel. I know that a few of my friends are still making a living in companies that are focusing on orphan diseases and oncology but there’s something immoral about hooking up people to drugs you know they can’t live without with the goal of milking every dollar from them.  I realize that research is expensive but we didn’t use to be so mercenary about it.  Instead of solving the problem of out of control research costs, the new wizards of pharma finance have glommed onto cheap, dirty and unsustainable new ways to make money. Reduce your workforce to desperation, focus on the poor unfortunate chronically ill and ignore everyone else. This is the new business model.

And it is broken.

Madeleine Jacobs makes $800,000+ a year

I rarely answer my critics.  In fact, I don’t even read them.  Why play Whack-a-Mole with people whose sole purpose in life appears to be poking you to see how you react?

But it has recently come to my attention that Madeleine Jacobs, executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society wrote an Op/Ed particularly criticizing something I said to a reporter at the Washington Post.

The piece that reporter wrote didn’t exactly misquote me, although he wasn’t entirely accurate either, but let’s just say that Brian left a lot of things out and “shaped” his predetermined narrative.  If you read that article and had never read anything I’ve posted about my career or layoff  *here*, you would have gotten a distorted impression about my passion for science.

But the most annoying thing was that my comments about not encouraging my daughter to go into science has left a lot of context on the editorial cutting room floor.  But anyway, here’s Madeleine’s snippy little commentary on what I said:

This misguided advice so stunned me that I began crafting a response, but Daniel Jordan, a biology major, beat me to the punch with a superb letter to the Washington Post. He wrote: “Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons. Energetic men and women must be encouraged to enter the sciences despite these obstacles. In fact, those individuals who are passionate enough about their work to stick with it during times of hardship and who hunger to expand their, and our, knowledge of the world are the very ones we most want. … This prognosis of doom and gloom should be seen as a catalyst to redouble our efforts to foster creativity, ingenuity and admiration for the sciences.”

Right on, Daniel! The U.S. must support and produce the most-talented, best-trained scientists in the world to drive U.S. innovation. In the 1960s, in the aftermath of Sputnik, being a scientist was a noble calling. Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty.

Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine, you have taken on the wrong person, my dear.

Let me address this one item at a time:

1.) My daughter is good at many subjects.  I won’t go into it all right now because people are sick of hearing about it but suffice it to say that she is currently being recruited by some very nice universities and she just started her junior year in high school.  But the reason she is being recruited is because her brain has a peculiar and rare wiring for languages.  She is a human babel fish.  When I talked to Brian, I told him that I thought she might be good at international law, something he neglected to mention.  But she might very well be suited for research into the cognitive sciences or computational linguistics.  Right now, she is taking two AP science courses and I’m sure she will do well in them.  But with TWO parents who have experienced layoffs and have not been able to get jobs that pay what they used to make, and who have to pay for their health insurance and everything else, she knows without me even telling her that chemistry and biotech in general are very unstable career paths.

2.) I am hardly the only one who has told their kids to not go into chemistry, medicinal chemistry or biotech, Madeleine.  I am simply the person who isn’t afraid to admit it.  In fact, all of my former colleagues have told their kids the same thing.  Don’t go into biomedical, biotech, or chemical research.  Even the ones who still have jobs, and there aren’t many of my friends who haven’t been laid off, have told me that if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t have gone into research.  They say this because they know that the people who run the industry don’t give a rat’s ass about how much passion they put into their jobs or how much experience they have or even if they have discovered a multi-billion dollar drug.  The bottom line is the bottom line and when it is time to cut costs, your salary just looks like it is getting in the way of some shareholder’s dividend and some hot shot corporate office jockey riding over your life to a big bonus.

3.) The industry is becoming increasingly unforgiving towards those of us without PhDs.  In this environment, Michael Faraday would be relegated to glass washing. It’s short sighted and I have found that even on sympathetic chem industry blogs, the PhDs are lording it over the rest of us and clinging to their privilege as if their years of sacrifice in graduate school were still meaningful or necessary (it’s not necessary, trust me).  But it’s not enough to get a PhD these days.  No, you have to be the creme de la creme. The Wall Street Culture of Smartness, status and privilege has invaded the biotech world. You must be a graduate of the best universities in the world, have a royal pedigree and have made some stupendous, miraculous discovery that will be the next big “get rich quick!” thing that the financial backers will invest in.  If you’re lucky, you will be paid a lot of money, but probably not as much as the Wall Street analyst who is checking your outfit out, and will be relocated (if necessary) to Cambridge or San Francisco or some equally outrageously expensive place to live.  If your now shuttered US lab facility bestows upon you the blessings of employment in Cambridge, you will have to sell your underwater house and take your kids out of school and relocate them to one of these high priced enclaves.  Or you will have to leave your family behind.

And what will you do when you get there?  If you are fortunate, you will get to apply your expertise in a lab but more likely, you will be saddled with coordinating half a dozen contracts and remote labs where underpaid scientists do one thing in the absence of any context of a project.  Yep, people who are not PhDs get to run HPLCs or robotics or something that requires a degree but is not particularly interesting.  You are not part of a project team, you only get the information you need to know and you don’t need to know.

Those who do not have PhDs will end up working for CROs or some teensy little biotech that compensates you with equity.  When the small company fails, and over 80% do according to your own ACS representatives who come to the local university to try to talk you into risking everything you own to start one, you will be encouraged to jump to another small company for a short period of time and then another and another.  It will be like Silicon Valley, except that unlike projects in Silicon Valley, biological organisms rarely obey the laws of physics.  They have their own agendas.  Then, those same ACS representatives will tell you to make a deal with Merck or Pfizer who have a whole stable full of the best lawyers that money can buy who will write 400 page contracts to ease you out of your patent rights.  Your own ACS representatives will tell you to take the lousy 1% return that the big pharmas offer you and consider yourself lucky.  Oh, yes, they really did say that, Madeleine.  I have witnesses.

So, here we have thousands of people jumping from company to company, without many benefits, without much of a salary but lots of promises that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, and without any pension or security.  And with that, you’re supposed to be able to rent a house.  Let’s just throw out actually OWNING a home, Madeleine.  Even if a bank will give you a mortgage, you’d have to be totally nuts to get yourself into one with no prospects of employment stability.  Those of us in NJ have learned that lesson the hard way. You might not even be able to buy a car.  If you’re a woman, you might as well get your tubes tied.  If you get pregnant, you can’t work in the lab for long.  And if you can’t work in the lab, you’re going to look like you’re slacking.  Maternity leave?  In these economic conditions?  What person in their right mind would take that kind of risk?  There are hundreds of thousands of unemployed scientists right now who would be more than willing to take whatever job they can get even if that meant taking over from a more well qualified woman.  Stabbing women in the back and taking over their projects is standard operating procedure for any guy who wants to secure one of the few remaining jobs in the industry game of employment musical chairs.  I’ve seen the number of women in certain departments plummet as they were either forced out or laid off while their male colleagues snagged the peach positions in Cambridge.  It happens all the time.

What you are lecturing us to take, Madeleine, is the same insecure precariat existence that Michelle Obama was so cluelessly passionate about in her DNC speech.  Isn’t it great that so many teachers will work for no pay?  Isn’t it wonderful that so many dedicated, smart chemists will go work for peanuts and an uncertain, unstable economic existence?  What patriots!

Madeleine, we do have caloric requirements.  We need a roof over our heads.  As a military brat, I’m used to moving every year or two.  I didn’t always like it but my background makes me pretty receptive to shifting gears and learning new things.  I went out of my way to go back into the lab in my last year of work to learn molecular biology and crystallography and I *loved* it.  In middle age, I decided to do something that some of my more lofty, PhD carrying colleagues felt was beneath them.  Many of the PhDs I worked with think that past a certain point, lab work is a step down.

Don’t you get it, Madeleine??  I’m the person you were referring to with the passion and interest to do the work.  I was working on my projects literally to the very last minutes I had a job.  I had 4 months from the announcement of my layoff until my last day and I worked like a maniac those last 4 months, staying well into the night to solve my structures because I loved my work and I knew I might never have that experience again in my lifetime.  But it made no difference to the people who wanted me gone to satisfy their numbers.  Those people even sent us emails a couple of weeks after the layoff announcements congratulating themselves for reducing costs and making the analysts quarterly earnings predictions. Those reduced costs were me and my unfortunate colleagues who were left jobless in the middle of Pharmageddon smack dab in the heart of the worst recession since the 1930’s.

Who the heck do you think you’re talking to, Madeleine?  I collaborate with people who have taken very steep cuts in salary and while they’re grateful to have any job at all, they can’t make their mortgage payments.  I know people who have had to commute to one state for part of the week and only see their families on weekends. Like diamond miners in Soweto.  They share apartments with other chemists.  My own daughter’s dad works in a different country for months at a time on a contract without any benefits.

This is no way to treat your smartest citizens.  And frankly, I have no idea why any of us take it.  The unemployment rate among chemists, even PhDs, is much, much higher than is being reported.  It has to be because we are all laid off.  One of the companies I worked for, Wyeth, laid off 19,000 people when it was bought by Pfizer including all by a handful of my former colleagues.  The company I worked for last year has shut down the facility and transferred only a couple dozen people to their Cambridge facility.  I met one person going to Cambridge who was extremely worried that the job would be temporary at best.

But we’re supposed to uproot our very talented children to go chasing our dreams and take whatever job we can at vastly reduced salaries.  In my case, much of what I do can be done from my home but we’ve got to go out and find the work and keep finding it and keep finding it.  We will never have a moment’s security and as our savings dwindle and unemployment insurance is denied to the self-employed, we will be constantly worried about how we’re going to pay the bills.

And let’s not even start on how we’re supposed to fork over $33.00 per paper in an ACS publication when we need to do research.  Saddling new small companies and self-employed people with these outrageous digital copy costs of material that was given to you for free is a little like shooting the baby on the way out of the womb.  What’s that all about?  Madeleine’s family has to subsist on $800K+/year but a hard working researcher footing their own bills is going to be able to fork over $33/copy for an obtuse 4 page paper?

What about the ACS’s patriotic duty?  Because of your organization’s greedy publication pricing structure, most of us can’t afford to even do the preliminary research to do our work.  We have to make friends with university professors with licenses and instead of just downloading the paper to our computers at home, need to make special trips to university libraries.  Do you know how annoying it is to find that the paper you really need is a buried citation in the paper you read at the university library and now you need to make yet another trip??

Not only is your pricing policy greedy and anachronistic, it doesn’t even make sense financially.  You’re not going to get us to pay $33.00 a copy.  Nooooo, we’ll get it for free from some other source. Do you think we just fell off the turnip truck? That means the ACS gets nothing.  If you adopted an iTunes model and charged one or two dollars a digital copy, that might actually make you money.  But no, you’d rather screw the very people you are excoriating for not working hard enough for their new American precariat existences.

And what are you doing about the visa problem, Madeleine? What are you doing to protect those of us new self-employed and contractors who need to get paid regularly and no longer have labor protections?  What are you doing about getting us low cost group health insurance policies, not gap insurance?  Why aren’t you working with the Freelancers Union to help chemists make the transition?  Why aren’t you lobbying congress on our behalf and proposing private-public partnerships to take over abandoned labs in NJ to put people back to work?  Do you know what the unemployment rate is in NJ?  It’s almost 10%.  What is it you are doing with the $800K+ dollars the ACS is paying you every year?  Writing clueless Op/Ed pieces about people in the trenches who you know nothing about is not the best use of your time, Madeleine.

When the industry is doing it’s best to kill research in this country and when professors are telling their grad students to not pursue a career in chemistry and dedicated chemists are losing their lifestyles and their houses and their careers after decades of hard work, you’ve got a lot of nerve telling me how to raise my kids. I’m not going to encourage my bright, multilingual Brooke to become some economically insecure lab rat indentured to a bunch of greedy vulture capitalists.

From where I am sitting, my patriotic duty is to tell the truth about what is happening to us so that maybe someone takes an interest in preserving the last tiny shreds of American scientific infrastructure that are left.  And if that makes you uncomfortable or conflicts with the lies you’ve been telling our governmental officials or your idea that well educated professional chemists should become desperate and cheap labor for your industrial friends, tough.  You can always resign.  Trust me, there are thousands of chemists who would jump at a chance to do your job better than you do at less than half of your salary.

Friday Science Horror Story

The title was suggested by Lambert at Corrente.  I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.

The site, Chemjobber, reported back in January 2012 that the unemployment rate among chemists was at 6.1%.  That’s much higher than the BLS rate from a year earlier when the BLS said it was about half that.  But it’s still nowhere near what we on the ground are witnessing.  I guess a better question would be how many chemists are practicing chemists.  From what I’m seeing, not very many.  The former colleague I met in the grocery store yesterday told me that the biotech my old company bought laid off all but 4 of the chemists they had.  That’s right.  Medium sized biotech laid off all but *4* chemists.

Chemjobber also has some less than encouraging words for the future of chemistry in this country from a candidate for the presidency of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Dr. Dennis Chamot:

Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers.

What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic…

[snip] Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed.

The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.

Depressing.  We really love science but we won’t be doing it for a living anymore.

One other thing my former colleague told me was that upper management is now starting to pressure the remaining scientists to cut back on the amount of research they do.  She found this puzzling.  If you are in the research business, it’s going to take research to do it.  There’s no way to predict how many experiments are needed in advance so they can be entered in the spreadsheet in preparation for the next quarter’s numbers.  If costs are driving the move to China and the massive layoffs in America, then I will reiterate my prediction that drugs will not be discovered in either of those two places.  Research needs time, stability and continuity.  It takes as long as it takes and the cells are going to do what they’re going to do.  Any financial analyst who tells you otherwise has probably got a bridge to sell you too.

I’m placing my bets on western Europe where the government has an interest in maintaining the scientific infrastructure and where workplace protections are strong.  Those two factors lead to stability and continuity of research.

The unemployment rate among chemists is not due to structural changes or globalization.  As I have said before, there are so many discoveries in biology right now that there is more than enough work for every scientist in the world to be fully occupied and overwhelmed with work for the rest of his or her life.  The unemployment rate is the result of a calculated but naive set of decisions on the part of management and negligence on the part of our government.

Friday: Well, this is interesting- NIH request for information on the future of biomedical research

From Jared Berstein's blog. If you havent' found a job after 6 months, your chances of getting are slim.

A few months back when I was still working, the American Chemical Society held a webinar with some people from the Bureau of Labor Statistics where they proceeded to tell us that unemployment was really, really low for chemists.  The disconnect was astonishing until we realized that the BLS hadn’t collected data since before the Lesser Depression began.  The pharmaceutical industry has laid off something like 300,000 people since 2007 and this time, the sales division did not take the biggest hits. In my own immediate family/friends, not one of us has a full time job with benefits for the first time in our working lives.  We are all either un or under employed without health benefits and are barely managing to scrape by with paying our rents and mortgages after the industry lured us out to the most expensive part of the country to live and then stranded us here.  And we are not high school dropouts.  We all have degrees, some of them PhDs from prestigious universities, in physical or natural sciences and our performance evaluations were good.  Some of us even got performance awards (for the second year in a row!) a month before we got our pink slips.

Well, it seems like the NIH is trying to get some new data.  As Derek Lowe reports on In the Pipeline:

A reader passes along this request for comment by the NIH. The “Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce” is asking for thoughts on issues such as the length of time it takes to get a PhD, the balance between non-US and US workers, length of post-doctoral training, the prospects for employment after such is completed, general issues relating to whether people choose biomedical research as a career at all, and so on.

If you are in the industry, let me rephrase that, if you once had hopes to work in the industry but have had those hopes brutally dashed after you spent years slaving away over a hotplate, you may want to contribute your constructive input.  You have until October 7, 2011 to do it.  Go to this form.  Try not to get tears and snot on the keyboard while you’re filling it out.

From the  NIH website on this RFI, here’s some of the information they are interested in:

Purpose

This Notice is a time-sensitive Request for Information (RFI) requesting input into the deliberations of the Advisory Committee to the NIH Director Working Group on the Future Biomedical Research Workforce.

Background

The Advisory Committee to the NIH Director (ACD) has established a working group to examine the future of the biomedical research workforce in the United States (seehttp://acd.od.nih.gov/bwf.asp for charter and roster).  The group will gather information from various sources including the extramural community, and will develop a model for a sustainable, diverse, and productive U.S. biomedical research workforce using appropriate expertise from NIH and external sources. The model will help inform decisions about how to train the optimal number of people for the appropriate types of positions that will advance science and promote health. The working group will recommend actions to the ACD and to the NIH Director.

In its initial deliberations, the working group identified the following issues as important to consider when developing a model of the future biomedical research workforce:

  • The balance between supply, including the number of domestic and foreign trained PhDs and post-docs, and demand, i.e. post-training career opportunities.
  • Characteristics of PhD training in biomedical research, including issues such as
  • The length of the PhD training period.
  • Recommendations for changes to the PhD curriculum.
  • Training for multiple career paths (including bench and non-bench science).
  • Characteristics of clinician-research training including issues such as
  • The balance between MDs and MD/PhDs
  • Career development of clinician-researchers.
  • Recommendations for changes to the curricula for training clinician-researchers.
  • Length of Post-doctoral training.
  • The ratio of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows on training grants to those supported by research grants.
  • Possibilities for professional/staff scientist positions and the level of training required for such positions (e.g. PhD or MSc degrees).
  • Issues related to the attractiveness of biomedical research careers (e.g. salary, working conditions, availability of research funding)
  • The effect of changes in NIH policies on investigators, grantee institutions and the broader research enterprise.

I’d like to thank whoever is responsible for getting this together for actually taking an interest in the issue, even if it is years too late to save our careers or the underlying infrastructure that all Americans are counting on to produce the results we have taken for granted in modern times.  If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the number of PhDs produced is irrelevant if no one wants to hire you.  Regardless of your degree level, studying the sciences is not for the faint of heart.  It takes dedication to master some difficult material, perseverance to learn new information and years and years of practice before you’re any good.  You can get your 10,000 hours in graduate school or on the job.  Some non-PhD scientists are extremely capable and some PhDs come to industry with lots of attitude but no practical skills.  But whatever the degree level and regardless of where we are located in the world, there just aren’t a whole lot of us who have the skills to do research at this level.  We need to be compensated accordingly.  At some point, research becomes an art.  It’s not something that can be broken down into assembly line, just-in-time parts.  It operates best when there is “frictionless” collaboration, when the physical barriers that separate groups are minimal and leadership is partitioned away from the bean counters.

JMHO.

Wednesday: Their plans for us

I read Paul Krugman’s post VSP Economics with amusement the other day where he critiqued a Washington Post editorial on economic policy.  Paul thinks the editorialists are being inconsistent when they wring their hands over the unemployment issue but then propose economic remedies that do not help put people back to work.

It’s worse than that.  I’m in the trenches and from what I can see, there is remarkable consistency between policy and desired outcomes.  I got the point last week at an event put together by the local division of the American Chemical Society (ACS) and organizations affiliated with NJ biotech incubators.

I’m going to assume that the ACS organizers were well intentioned.  They know that the employment situation for chemists in NJ is dire and they wanted to present some alternatives for the long term unemployed.  But if the scenarios that were presented are what we have to look forward to, we might as well get used to living in poverty.  In fact, living in NJ will become a fantasy for a chemist with a family and a mortgage.

What we are being encouraged to do is start our own companies.  In order to do this, we will borrow money from our “friends, family and fools”.  We will apply for space in an incubator program that comes with a few percs, like free internet and low rents.  Then, we will work ourselves silly in the lab AND as entrepreneurs, taking care of the paperwork and the funding.  At some point, we will meet with angels and venture capitalists who will put us through the wringer, demanding lots and lots of expensive data and so much of the future potential profits that a rapacious feudal lord would blush with envy.  Some of these vultures won’t even talk to a scientist entrepreneur who doesn’t have an MBA.  Is there a language barrier?  I’m not sure having an MBA is an asset since I see plenty MBAs without any management or business acumen.  In return, we will get a relatively small amount to live on and the quarterly anxiety that goes along with finding sufficient funding for the staff to keep it all going.  And we will be expected to be grateful for that.

The presenters made it sound like a thrilling roller coaster ride- off the side of a cliff.   One of them said he had to figure out how to pay a PhD and another labrat when the money runs out in September.  The other confessed that the meeting with the venture capitalists was extremely difficult and stressful and that the legal documents prepared by big pharma were frequently long, complex and confusing. One woman proposed that turn NJ into a biotech heaven analogous to Silicon Valley where hotshot scientists constantly jump from one small company to another.  This is already happening in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The presenter chimed that some people in Silicon Valley work their entire careers in unsuccessful startups and they LOVE it. Yes, we labrat types LOVE to spend our time on unsuccessful projects.  It’s what we live for.

The difference between high tech Silicon Valley and biotech is that biotech can’t be done exclusively on a computer.  Equipment and reagents are extremely expensive.  It takes many, many trials and errors to figure out how biology works.  And then there is the problem of assembling the ingredients of a pharmaceutical company, by yourself.  Yep, you get to find the screeners and biologists and pharmacologists and chemists and compound collection and formulation group and ADMET people.  How is one supposed to do all of this?  Swap specialities?  Work for free?  In New Jersey? Did I mention that 80% of these companies fail?

The more they tried to spur us on to new and greater heights of entrepreneurial glory, the more the depressing details of the experience seeped out.  What we are looking forward to is a very insecure future with no steady income, no health benefits, and, more importantly (but somehow overlooked), no continuity of research.  If we are fortunate enough to hit upon a million dollar idea, venture capitalists will swoop down to take a huge cut.  There will be endless hours in the lab using old equipment and workarounds and even more endless hours doing businessy things and dealing with people we would not normally have a beer with.  Ever.

One professor of a university in the region said he is actively discouraging some of his PhD students from pursuing their doctorates.  He said that there is no future in chemistry in this country and what is available requires a personality and degree of salesmanship that some of his students do not possess. We are encouraged to network, like salespeople and executives because most available jobs are never posted.  You have to know somebody who knows somebody.  It’s a patronage system now, not a meritocracy.  This is difficult for scientists who more often than not are introverted types who live in their heads.  The world needs people like that but now they are expected to be extroverted cheerleaders for themselves and brag about their accomplishments.  And the layoffs just keep on coming in big pharma while the CEOs of the big companies scout around for ideas they can buy up or license in, ideas that will be produced by the insane hours spent using last generation’s broken down equipment in incubators and garage labs of the people they have let go.  So, the professor is now leveling with his grad students- get out of chemistry while you’re still young.

What are we to make of this?  What I see is the business and finance elite would like to turn the rest of us into contractors and the independent self-employed.  They would very much like to get something for nothing, or very little.  As long as laws and policies are developed that allow for it, they will continue to take advantage of an unlevel playing field.  The healthcare reform bill gems nicely with the plan to unburden the employer.  Soon, all contractors will carry their own health coverage.  Contractors and sel-employed also have to pay all of their social security taxes and fund their own retirements.  Social Security taxes will eat into any living wages we can earn so it won’t be long before we join the ranks of the other self-employed calling for more tax relief.  The entrepreneurs will struggle on daily basis to meet payroll and will have to deal with their own income insecurity.  One thing is for sure, very little idea generating is going to go on in the labs.  The big pharma labs are full of overstressed, overworked people who can barely think straight while they’re dealing with an ever more dysfunctional management.  A few Andy Hardy types in a garage lab will quickly lose their fresh optimism as they look forward to years and years of incredibly hard grunt work for a product which they will be expected to turn over to a bunch of MBAs at bargain prices.

And MBAs are in the business of making money.  It’s all about the portfolios and the stock price and the shareholders.  They don’t care about how hard science is.  Like sharks aren’t concerned about the lives of the schools of fishes they feed upon. This is not personal.  This is survival of the fittest as understood by the business major.  What they seem to have forgotten is that even a good idea doesn’t thrive in an environment where it can find no sustenance.  I’m one of the few people in my extended family with a degree but when I look at how well my working class and gray collar cousins are doing, I might as well have just skipped college altogether.  Oh, sure, I’ve read Hume, Descartes and Kant too but my degree won’t pay the bills and now I wonder if deciphering 18th century philosophical tomes was worth the effort when I could be selling fast food franchises and buying outside cabins with balconies on my yearly cruises to the southern Caribbean.

The only thing on our side is time.  That is, with the internet age, the business cycle has sped up.  The present incarnation is unsustainable.  There is only so much effort, money and blood that can be squeezed from working people before the system collapses.  If you’re still working for a big employer and want to see what your future holds, look to the labs.  It is hard to think about science when you’re constantly worried about what is going to happen three months from now.  You can not have a family or house or vacations.  You can’t really spend money.  And when people don’t spend money, the economy can not grow, 401Ks can not grow, and companies will have no choice but to cut back even more.  It’s a vicious cycle run by money addicted gamblers.

I hope we hit bottom soon.

Some Blasts from the Past:

Teresa Ghilarducci was interviewed by Terry Gross back in 2009.  Ghilarducci is a specialist in the area of retirement insecurity.  The interview is worth a second listen because most of us under 55’s are already dealing with some of the problems she is talking about: underfunded 401Ks, prolonged unemployment, reduced or absent defined benefit pensions.

About the same time, NPR explored whether the 401k is a good deal for American workers.  As has been the trend with NPR in the past 10 or so years, the answer was mildly positive for the budding stock jockey employee.  The problem is if you want make a lot of money with your 401K, you have to devote a lot of time to researching and making the right decisions about your portfolio options and most of us do not have the time or inclination.  I think the fund managers are rather counting on that.  The bigger problem is that an employee can no longer trust ANYONE with their retirement funds whether they are in some administrated 401K plan or pension fund that employers are now anxious to jettison.  Social security looks like the best plan we have right now and even that is under constant threat.

And can we talk a moment about how Democrats are using the future of the  social safety net programs as a fear tactic for next year’s election?  Bloggers like Digby are wondering why the Democrats seem to be inching their way towards capitulation to the Republicans’ plans to scuttle unemployment benefits, medicare, medicaid and social security.  It makes perfect sense if you consider that they need to look like the only thing between you and the Republicans’ plan to make sure you’re economically insecure.  It makes them more electable.  Yeah, dangle social safety net programs above a pit of snapping crocodiles and then dare voters to cut the rope.  Democrats use economic insecurity as a fear tactic in a similar way that Republicans use terrorism as a threat to physical security.  You can’t trust a Democrat to protect you from scary bad guys and you can’t trust Republicans to protect your ability to make a living or retire.

It’s all about getting re-elected, which suggests to me that neither party really wants to do away with these programs. They know it would be fatal.  Besides, they are succeeding beyond their expectations by turning us into independent contractors. It’s political cover and election year kabuki.  To them, it’s all about keeping that seat and maintaining power.  And if that’s what really motivates them, then the scare tactic we the voters need to use to reassert our own power is to vote for someone else.  As long as we buy into the narrative they write for us, they win.

A third party could clean up big time next year.  But please, no more Ralph Naders or lefty puritans.  What we need is a big, brash working class New Deal Democrat.

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