What’s in my Instapaper queue?

It’s getting crowded in the Instapaper queue.  Time to clean it out.  This is what I’ve found interesting lately:

1.) The Dragons of Inaction is a 2011 paper from the journal American Psychologist listing the reasons behind the resistance to climate change claims.  As you may expect, resistance can be grouped into ideological and non-ideological causes.  One of the most interesting causes is mistrust.  We should expect that the people most likely to benefit from climate change denialism will play on trust issues in their target audience.  The conclusion section is light on recommendations but I thought it would be a good exercise to learn how the Fox News crew might put this information to use.

2.) An Ominous Health Care Ruling is the latest editorial by the NYTimes on the two Obamacare rulings yesterday regarding subsidies.  The editorial board is remarkably frank, given its boosterism for the ACA:

The 2-to-1 decision issued by the panel hinged on how to interpret language in the Affordable Care Act that most experts agree was poorly drafted and would ordinarily have been corrected by a Congressional conference committee. In this instance, there was no conference committee because the law was passed on a take-it-or-leave-it vote in the House to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate.

But then it reverts to form at the end by stating that regardless of what Congress did or didn’t do by rushing the bill through, the judiciary has a responsibility to not use ideology as an excuse to take subsidies away.  IMHO, the ACA perfectly demonstrates my former advanced inorganic chemistry prof’s saying, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” In other words, we are all potentially screwed by the effects of this bad legislation until Congress decides to do it over the right way.  When it has time.  And when it also has the rare astronomical convergence of a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, a majority in the House and a president in the White House who, you know, actually gives a crap.  Maybe some time next century. Maybe that was the plan.

3.) In A $650Million Donation to Psychiatric Research, we find research into the causes and a cure for bipolar disease funded by a billionaire with deep pockets who also has a son afflicted with the condition.  It’s great for people with bipolar spectrum disorder but not so great in that it takes a private person to fund it.  The reason so many pharmaceutical companies are pulling out of psychiatric research is that it’s incredibly expensive and there is an extra hurdle to jump when it comes to the brain.  It’s called the blood brain barrier and it gives drug designers and medicinal chemists fits because only compounds with certain physical properties can cross this barrier and they are devilishly hard to make and get approved.  So, you know, there’s not so much profit in it for Big Pharma.  And now we have to rely on billionaires with a personal stake.  {{sigh}}

By the way, the recipient of this largess, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA, is primarily a computational biology outfit.  That will be very useful for tracking down the genetic causes and systems biology associated with bipolar spectrum disorder and schizophrenia but biologists don’t make the drugs.  That’s what medicinal chemists, structural biologists and drug designers are trained to do.  It will be curious to see going forward whether the Broad Instituts recruits more of these specialties or decides to farm them out.  Farming it out would be a mistake, I think, since project teams need to see the same material and work on it together.  On the other hand, if Broad doesn’t mind hiring modelers remotely, I am available.  ;-)

4.) The Atlantic posted an article on The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence.  In short, being acutely attuned to the emotional states of everyone around you might be great for salespeople but it sucks for people working in professions that require concentration and contemplation.  For the latter group, paying attention and kissing up to the people around you is a distraction.  The resulting effects on the working environment of those people expected to play the EQ game when they don’t have time for it are predictable. From the study cited in the article:

Cote’s team assessed how often the employees deliberately undermined their colleagues. The employees who engaged in the most harmful behaviors were Machiavellians with high emotional intelligence. They used their emotional skills to demean and embarrass their peers for personal gain.

Seen that happen with my own eyes.  Depressing but all too common, especially in the uber-competitive environments engineered by biz school grads and propagated throughout the industries they manage.

5.) The website, Ask the Headhunter, has a video for those of you who can’t get through the HR filters that you are required to navigate to apply for jobs.  If you are lucky enough to already have a job and haven’t been through this exercise in futility, it goes something like this: You see a job on a website for which you are (probably over)qualified and are directed to the company’s HR application system.  Then you spend hours per application uploading your resume and then reformatting it (god knows why the reformatting step is necessary but the OCR never gets it right.  Besides, didn’t you just upload a copy of your resume??).  Anyway, after you have edited and reformatted and written a brilliant cover letter telling the company all of the reasons why you would be more than perfect for the job, you never hear from them again.  Oh, sometimes you’ll get a form generated reply saying they received your information.

The truth is, there are filters that are set to weed people out and nobody knows what they are.  In some cases, the HR filter is set so unproductively that most applicants who qualify never make it to the resume review round.  That may be why so many employers whine they can’t get good help anymore.  If they would only hire people who could reset the filters for them they might get better candidates.  But to do that, they’d have to reset the filters themselves in the beginning and that takes vigilance, time and probably one FTE. It’s a vicious circle. Nick Corcodilos says to scrap the resume and don’t bother going through the HR application process.  The best way to get a job is to hang around people in your field or the area that you want to get into, and make connections.  In other words, you need to be a human with a face because HR filters do a lousy job of staffing and are probably not worth your time.

6.) Alistair McCauley reviewed the current production of the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake at Lincoln Center.  It’s not pretty but it is a fun read:

At the start of every dance, my heart would lift again, noting some marvelous feature of Bolshoi style. The communicative generosity of manner! The thick-cream legato flow and keen dynamic sense! The juicy red-meat richness of texture! The unaffectedly erect posture of the torsos and their gorgeous pliancy! The easy amplitude of line! The powerful sweep through space! Yet nothing availed. Each dance soon grew monotonous.

I can’t remember, is McCauley the critic who thinks all ballerinas could stand to lose a little weight?  Anyway, I’m not a fan of companies with a lugubrious ballet style.  Give me something livelier, and, er, probably not Swan Lake.

7.) I. Must. Have. This. Desk from CB2.  I am confident that my life and blogging will be improved by it.

And a heads up to you IKEA fans.  The 2015 Catalog is supposed to hit the interwebs tomorrow.  I can hardly wait!

8.) Finally, I am on the third part of the longest Audible book I have ever “read”.  It’s The Last Lion, a biography of Winston Churchill.  It’s excellent and probably more detailed than any biography has a right to be.  Highly recommended.  5 sponges.

So, I ran across a page on some of his predictions and inventions.  For example, did you know that Winston invented the tank and the onesie?  Ok, maybe not his finest hour.  But he was a great futurist.  Check it out.

The funny thing is, Churchill was never a great student but he had a formidable intellect.  He was definitely not Ivy League material in the most 2014 sense of the word.  That would have been a great loss for England if our current standards of performance were in effect then.  He might have ended up writing Op/Eds for WaPo and gone no further in life.

And here are a few Winston quotes for good measure:

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” (Sound familiar?)

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.”

“It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”

He made his share of mistakes and was on the wrong side of history as far as women’s suffrage was concerned (they turned out for him anyway).  He failed many times but he learned from his failures and he never surrendered.  Cool dude and an honest guy.  We need someone like him right now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re: Christie

I am not at all surprised that New Jersey is experiencing financial difficulties:

April’s income tax revenues from the state’s wealthiest residents are far less than expected, and the overall shortfall for the current fiscal year is $800 million below the Christie administration’s projections.

From a first hand perspective, I lived through Pharmageddon from 2007-2013 when lab after lab shut down, transferring a tiny fraction of the workforce to Cambridge, MA and leaving tens of thousands of highly skilled, well paid STEM professionals to rot in the vast suburban jungle between New York City and Philadelphia.  (Don’t believe me, you congressional lurkers out there?  Go look up the NJDOL stats for those years.  When you’re done cringing in horror at the waste of human and tax resources, you can tell those Pharma lobbyists to f^&* off the next time they whine that they just can’t find good help anymore and need to import from Asia.)

Of course, it wasn’t all Christie’s fault.  He wasn’t elected until 2009 (no, I didn’t vote for him.  I voted for Chris Daggett).  By then, the merry axmen in the executive suites were already hacking away at families and careers with abandon.  Living in New Jersey ain’t cheap and it gets damn near impossible when you lose your $100K salary to be replaced by a measly $2000/month in unemployment.  Someone besides me should see the link between the hemorrhaging of highly paid jobs and NJ’s fiscal problems.

Just think of all the tax revenue that was lost when Christie couldn’t be bothered to stop the carnage.  That’s tens of thousands of well paid jobs, *poof!*, gone in a flash.  Deval Patrick didn’t seem to have trouble attracting that (vastly reduced) pool of jobs, did he?  By the way, did those biotechs in Cambridge who promised to hire in order to get tax breaks actually hire all the people they said they would?  And why didn’t Christie try to make a deal with the pharmas to keep them in the state?  Was he just too busy putting his political adversaries in thumb screws?  Was he having too much fun killing infrastructure projects and slashing the NJ Transit budget in order to give hard earned NJ tax dollars to developers of a white elephant in the Meadowlands?

Anyway, Paul Krugman should stop wondering about why people are so enamored with Christie.  Well, some of us weren’t but then we weren’t taken in by Obama either and for roughly the same reasons.  Both politicians coasted to victory by playing on the emotions of the electorate.  In Christie’s case, he says what he thinks everyone is thinking.  Or at least he’s not afraid to verbally abuse the defenseless.  He gives his supporters status by picking on someone down the totem pole, separating them from their fellow citizens.  In Obama’s case, he was all about appealing to the aspirations of the insecure.  He called them “the creative class”, gave them status and separated them from their natural allies.  He made some vulnerable democrats feel all warm and gooey.  Yes, we can.

So, what can we learn from Christie and Obama?  My guess is that when it comes to politics, it’s best to be a cold blooded voter and ask very directly and persistently, “What have you done for ME lately?”  And when those pols start going for the emotional jugular to tell them to talk to the hand and walk away.

 

What Yves said

Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism has a long post about former Goldman Sachs Vice President Greg Smith’s new book on the company.  Smith’s book, Why I Left Goldman Sachs, describes the atmosphere at Goldman and how vulnerable clients are in an environment when making a deal and the gigantic fees that come with it is more important than selling a complicated and flawed financial instrument to unsophisticated clients.  Yves gives her own insider view of Goldman and why the company has gone ballistic over Smith’s book while at the same time insisting that Smith was too junior to know what was going on.  The money quote comes at the end of her piece:

Goldman has such a strongly developed internal culture that even a change at the top would take a while to percolate through, and Smith appears to have seen the impact.

I can relate.  Those of us in the lower rungs of the pharmaceutical industry witnessed a similar phenomenon.  At one point, we were governed by scientists and MDs who rose through the ranks to head the companies.  But that started to change radically in the 90′s during the era of many mergers and acquisitions and it really accelerated in the 2000s.  The financiers began to have more influence at about that time and we read accounts of CEOs under fire from analysts to cut research and outsource heavily. In retrospect, it looks like they were setting up pharma companies for their next M&A deals but eventually, all of the restructuring and Wall Street culture of constant change tricked downwards. The performance and compensation system changed, adopting Jack Welch’s program that was designed for GE salespeople, until it resembled Enron with even the lowly lab rats ranking each other, hoarding resources and actively engaging in cutthroat activities in order to avoid the ax.  And that, my friends, is about the worst thing you can do to a research organization.  Collaboration is essential to research.  By the time Wall Street values had trickled down to our level, we could see that they were more suited to the sales executives but in the labs were alien, out of place and destructive.  When it got to the point that lab equipment repairs had to be justified and we were forced to charge other departments for services we used to provide as part of our project collaboration, it was over.

So, I have no doubt that whatever Smith witnessed at Goldman was significant, profound and deeply disturbing.  It may be a similar situation where the business has begun to run amok and eat itself from the inside out, where policies no longer make sense and where the bulk of his time was spent pushing the competition in the next office off of his pedestal.  At that point, it’s no longer a functional business.  It’s a game of winner take all musical chairs.

Yves speculates on the reasons why Smith doesn’t spill all of the beans on Goldman or is even as detailed in his account as someone like Michael Lewis.  Some of those reasons include his relatively low level and institutional omertà.  But another possible reason is that there are few former insiders, even low level insiders like Michael Lewis who can write well on what are pretty complex financial instruments and make them intelligible to the average consumer.   I loved Lewis’s book The Big Short but it wasn’t until I was halfway through the book before I understood enough of it that I saw the humor in some of Lewis’s passages.  Now I know what Wall Street was up to but I doubt that even many Wall Street analysts truly understand the math and models behind their dynamic proprietary programs.  If Greg Smith understands them, there’s probably a lot he can’t divulge without  getting the Goldman legal department to bear down on him.

In any case, Smith’s book sounds interesting but I probably won’t be adding this one to my audible queue.  It’s not because I don’t think it is a worthy read or can’t learn more.  It’s just that through Karen Ho’s book Liquidated, and Lewis’s The Big Short and Boomerang, I think I get the picture well enough to know what went wrong.  But if you don’t have the time or patience for more than just a high level summary. it sounds like Greg Smith’s book might be just the horror story to keep you up on a cold and stormy October evening.

The Strategy of No Strategy: Putting it together

N17 on Wall Street

This is the final part of my take on Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated- An Ethnography of Wall Street. I can’t do the book justice in a single blog post (it’s going to take at least four), I’m going to try to summarize some of what she is describing as the culture of Wall Street and how it is infiltrating our lives. I’m going to touch on four major themes in her book: “smartness”, “flexibility”, “shareholder value” and “the strategy of no strategy”. Check here Part1 on Smartness , Part2 on Flexibility and Part3 on Shareholder Value. I am going to try to tie Karen’s analysis of the culture of Wall Street to the pharmaceutical industry because having had a first person perspective, it is my belief that Big Pharma has felt the worst effects of Wall Street on its core business- discovering drugs.

This week, Bruce Booth of Forbes wrote an article about the culture of pharmaceutical R&D and how it has definitely taken a turn for the worse. Let me just say for the record that this is a culture that has developed over time and was forced on the labrats. We didn’t invent it in the lab because we know it would never work. (For more feedback and analysis from the labrats on this article, see this comment thread at In the Pipeline.) Over the years, I definitely got the feeling that our overlords thought of us as 1.)socially awkward nerds who 2.) didn’t know the value of a dollar and 3.) were completely unproductive if left to our own devices. But Booth sets the record straight in some respects. He takes on the ‘tyranny of the committee’ and risk aversion, which are related to one another and further exacerbated by, emphasis on shareholder value, FDA failure rate and class action lawsuits. Then he takes on what many first person labrats would say is the biggest problem with pharma today:

Organizational entropy’s negative impact. [entropy in this context means disorder] For most of Big Pharma, at least a few mega-mergers and their integrations have happened in the past decade. And for all of Big Pharma, there’s been the semi-annual reorganization around the latest fad in corporate design: matrix management, proliferating centers of excellence, end-to-end therapeutic area groups vs functional lines, disease area strategies rather than site strategies, etc… These cause constant organizational upheaval with levels of distraction that can’t be measured. Resumes fly through cyberspace as soon as a deal is announced. Organizations are frozen as these changes happen, fear of the unknown paralyzes entire project teams, and closures/layoffs happen without much regard to upgrading the talent and weeding out the deadwood. Drug R&D takes typically 10-15 years from start to approval; how can it stay on track with a cadence of change this fast? As I noted last summer, most new drugs approved today were discovered in the 1990s. Do you think those approvals would have happened faster if there weren’t so many mega-mergers and reorganizations in the meantime?

The answer to the last question is “yes, probably”. There’s no way to tell, really, but having survived multiple mergers over the past 2 decades, I can tell you that we vamped and put everything on hold for months and years on end while the executives had pissing matches and more local management engaged in political backstabbing. It was a horror show. Much valuable experimental time, money and talent was wasted in the aftermath of Wall Street engineered deals.

But Booth also makes the common mistake that presumes that if all of us just worked at smaller companies, we’ll be more innovative and save oodles of money! If that happens it would be the equivalent of putting a few dozen labrats on a desert island and telling them to build their own labs with the tools available. Yep, there will be some geniuses and amazingly well coordinated teams that will fashion robotics and gel electrophoresis devices from sand and seashells but it won’t necessarily be efficient nor will those labrats be able to purchase stuff they can’t find on the island. There’s a reason why medium sized corporate labs discovered all those drugs back in the 90s.

Nevertheless, this is the new model of drug discovery. You, the scientist are chucked out on your ass and some cocky asshole business class people just assume that you’re going to whip up the next Lipitor with some sleight of hand. We’re encouraged to become entrepreneurs but they seem to have forgotten that our severance packages didn’t consist of millions of dollars in stock options. For the most part, we have a lot of poor scientists with no place to practice their craft and a mountain of extremely hard work and expenses before a vulture capitalist signs on.

The Wall Street smarties never thought about any of this stuff when they made the M&A deals. Nor did they stop to reason out why so many labs were failing to produce new drugs in the wake of those deals. For the last decade, all we’ve heard is that it’s OUR fault. We’re lousy scientists or lazy or spendthrifts. And they probably won’t figure out that the small little islands they set us adrift on aren’t going to be as profitable as they had hoped. But it doesn’t really matter because as soon as they’ve extracted the last bit of wealth from the big pharmas for the shareholders, they’ll just abandon the industry and the American scientific infrastructure to its own fate and move on to some other industry where wealth can be extracted. That’s what they’re paid to do.

Likewise, they will continue to pressure governments to hand over every bit of wealth from their citizens, to adopt austerity measures and cause untold suffering because they are in the business of finance and making money and if you as a country took the loan, they will expect payment. They don’t need to reason out that they’d be better off structuring things so that economies would grow and so they would get a more reliable but unspectacular return over time. That’s your problem. Their problem is to make the biggest, fattest deals they can in the shortest amount of time with the maximum amount of profit. It’s an optimization problem, a Traveling Salesman problem, a Metropolis algorithm on a global scale with one optimization endpoint. How much money can you make? They are in it for the deals, making their numbers and retrieving the wealth and private property of the shareholders. They don’t have time or patience for whiners and losers. They don’t even have the time to worry about another Depression. All they care about is the deal.

Karen Ho describes the culmination of “smartness”, flexibility and shareholder value as a thing called The Strategy of No Strategy. This is where the normal world meets the weirdness of quantum finance. Regular people assume that there is a small evil group directing things for some specific purpose, some grand scheme, some particular worldview. But all that is mere icing on the cake if it happens. What the 1% are really into is how this moment in time is going to affect their bonuses. Their plot to take over the world doesn’t extend much further than that. That is the only cause and effect relationship that matters because other than the expectation of money at the end of the year, they have no other rights or expectations as employees. They’re valued only for their ability to make connections and extract money from other people, they expect to be laid off at any time and the working conditions are brutal. And all of the authoritarian, political crap that gets thrown in to the mix is simply to protect their right to that money. As a result, you, the target of their financial machinations, are expected to conform to their deals. You are expected to give up your job at a moment’s notice to satisfy shareholder value or work in less than optimal conditions because to complain is to be a loser. It even helps them if they don’t have too much contact with you because personal feelings might get in the way of doing what they need to do. If you get in the way of their bonuses, they will have a problem with you, nothing personal. If it ends up feeling very callous and cruel, well, better to decrease the surplus population.

Karen Ho describes how the Strategy of No Strategy drives and changes the world:

Given that the identities of investment banks are wrapped up in their ability to immediately induce change in their people via job insecurity and flexible compensation, it is not surprising that one of their primary strategies-their plans for the future based on their imaginings of “the world and the firm’s position in it”-is, simply, to have no long-term plans (Schoenberger 1997, 122). To actualize their central identity as being immediately responsive to their own changing relationships with the market (including employees, products, and so on), their strategy is, in a sense, to have no strategy. Ironically, having no long-term strategy is contradictory and potentially self-defeating in that investment banks often find themselves making drastic changes only to realize months or weeks later that those changes were unnecessary, premature, and extremely costly. For example, in chapter 5, I described how investment bankers, in part because of their access to “sensitive, proprietary information,” are not only fired in an instant, but must also leave the physical premises of the building within fifteen to thirty minutes. Given how crucial the control of knowledge and the protection of inside information are for Wall Street investment banks, it seems self-defeating that they do not place any premium on loyalty. Despite the fact that firms try above all to enforce secrecy, they accept and maintain this volatility and revolving-door policy.

At first glance, it seems not only improbable, but also “irrational” for investment banks to engage in such practices, for why would a business so focused on profitability and knowledge not engage in practices that always improve its bottom line and its control of information? As many anthropologists have demonstrated, capitalist organizations are not simply motivated by purely instrumentalist quests for profit or governed by perfect rational actors; they are sociocultural organizations with complex, contradictory worldviews and particular organizational practices (Yanagisako 1999, 2002). Profits may be claimed as one of investment banks’ primary ideals, but it is mediated, situated, and enacted-along with other values-through the social and cultural lenses of particular organizations, groups, and bankers. How profits are made, what constitute profits, and what amounts are considered “profitable” enough are also culturally, organizationally, and historically variable.

John Carlton, the seasoned investment banker and managing director from BT, described how Wall Street’s strategy is to operate without a long-term strategy:

“Again, it is a business where there is no tenure. There is no union protection. Basically, if things change, you could be out. That’s one reason why people are very flexible. So you need flexible people, and people who can deal with it every day. Some people would hate that. I don’t mind that. Some people can’t stand it. They can’t last. They say, “I like to know where I am going to be five years from now.” They like the idea of stability. It is not very stable. I think that is a characteristic. Probably most people you talk to would say that it is not a very stable environment. Most businesses have five-year plans-What are we going to be producing?-and have long product life cycles. [We] have very short product life cycles. How do you plan when you never know what the market is going to do?”

Although Carlton attributed the rationale for not having a plan to market unpredictability, my point is that not having a plan is central to the strategy and cultural identity of investment banks.

[...]

Underpinning the continual (re)creation of “instant” teams or product expertise is a corporate culture that values eagerness for change and expediency. The “build a new dam strategy” while the old dam overflows also prefigures waste and even decline. As I learned from informants throughout my fieldwork, these star hires and seven-figure offers are often abysmal failures: stories abound of senior bankers simply pocketing the cash and producing no results, of formerly successful teams that were separated and dislodged from the environments in which they had thrived.

In other words, reflection is not Wall Street’s strong suit.

This is the part of the book that kept me up at night. Here we have a bunch of “smart” people with no job security, driven by their own conditioning and the banks they work for, that see *themselves* as The Market. They are the ultimate precariats. They are no better than miners whose goal it is to take the top off the mountain. And they have asked and gotten more and more leeway to act as they please, without regard to rational expectations for the future of the things they act upon.

The pharmaceutical industry has been destroyed by Wall Street and now, it knows it. There won’t be a recovery for the gigantic monstrosities like Pfizer that merged so fast and furiously that it didn’t have time to structure its most valuable asset- its database of compound and assay information. They’ve jettisoned the most valuable parts of their organizations in order to feed the Wall Street beast and its spawn of corporate CEOs whose job tenure can be measured in less than a handful of years. It does not matter that there is a generation of scientists laid off who will never make the salaries they once had or can pay their taxes. It doesn’t matter that communities and states will feel the effects of hundreds of thousands of terminations. It doesn’t matter that millions of patients will now be left vulnerable to bacterial infections that can’t be stopped or cancer or schizophrenia. It doesn’t matter that once the labs have been dismantled and equipment sold off, there will be no one who will be ready to reconstitute the labs when or if our society wants to discover drugs again. It will not matter that they have retained the scientists who are the best salesmen- of themselves- and not necessarily the best experimentalists. All that mattered was the deal at the time it was made. And now, all that matters is getting in on the get-rich-quick deals that can be made from academic basic science and discoveries that are not quite ready for primetime and will be abandoned as soon as they do not generate the expected profits.

For society at large, the strategy of no strategy is behind the austerity measures pushed on all of us. For countries that took out loans, that money must be paid back regardless of the havoc it plays on the citizens or that more austerity makes recovery of that money even less likely. What matters is that the recovering the money is as optimal an exercise as possible as quickly as possible, to get the highest return in the shortest amount of time. It’s sort of like harvesting organs before the body can’t be kept alive any longer. Go read Never Let Me Go and you’ll know what I mean. So, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Great Britain and the US will continue to pay and pay and pay until no further profits can be extracted. Then, they will move on to a different hemisphere. What is surprising it how passive many countries have been in accepting this fate. How long will it take for western countries to rebel like the middle east has? Decades? Will we have to live with decades of austerity and growing authoritarianism?

And now we can see why our governments act the way they do. Back in 2007, when Hillary Clinton was the front runner. I remember talking to a colleague who had a friend who was once an investment banker on Wall Street who had insights into how the bankers were thinking in 2007. They knew there was trouble coming and were trying to thread the needle. A Republican candidate might cause another Depression with the wrong policies. No, they didn’t want the patient dead, well, not until they could recover themselves. Maybe a Democrat. But Hillary Clinton had a strong responsibility streak in her. Besides, she came from Yale and we know that the culture of smartness distrusts Yalies as being too liberal. Another New Deal might have been too much like rehab. So, they threw their weight behind the Harvard guy whose unchecked ambition and cool demeanor was more like the cut of their own jibs. Just like the undergrads they hire from Princeton and Harvard, it didn’t matter to them if he knew nothing about finance. They would teach him.

If you’ve ever wondered, like I have, why Obama careens from saving one institution  to another in negotiations behind closed doors and apparently without any guiding principles, like he was making it up as he goes along, now you know why. He is governing on a deal by deal basis, without a worldview and without a strategy. It’s his modus operandi and he does it with equal fluidity with the bankers, the auto industry, congress, health insurance companies and voters themselves. He’s playing Let’s Make a Deal with each individual entity and with everything on the table.  Flexibilty and the “culture of smartness” is important to him, which is why Geithner and Summers got so much face time with him.  Loyalty and planning not so much, which is why Christina Romer got the shaft.  All of the reports on the way the White House operates with the fast paced credit stealing and high profile tasks going to smart young men and the golf outings with “front office” guys, sounds a lot like Wall Street.  If it turns out that his team hadn’t thought about how Republicans would game the debt ceiling business or how the individual mandate without a public option would make employees *more* vulnerable to layoffs and loss of health benefits, well, this is what you have signed onto with Obama.  He doesn’t see his role as a long term policy maker or seasoned politician and it shows.  If you’ve never worked in a corporate environment, you might be forgiven for not recognizing how the schmoozer works the system but there’s no excuse the second time around.

All around the world, bankers had their way with government leaders, well, except for Iceland, whose decendents of marauding Vikings and new female prime minister told them to f&*( off.  I guess it takes pirates to know pirates.  But the rest of the world bowed quickly to the notion that recovery of the banking system was The. Most. Important. Thing. Everything else, their sovereignty, public welfare and future growth, was made secondary to the immediacy of keeping the paper flowing between the banks. The fear of a global meltdown made them cower. But there is no strategy to ever get out from under these conditions. There was no effort to reign in the bankers either. And they have a well oiled propaganda machine and know that when a population is under stress, it circles the wagons and becomes more conservative and nationalistic. Liberal policies look too risky and threatening. In next week’s vote in France, I would not be at all surprised if Nicolas Sarkozy managed to hang onto power, despite his unpopularity. The rational people of France may look to the right at Marine Le Pen’s crazy nationalists and fear that Le Pen’s faction will get enough votes to form a coalition with Sarkozy’s. Voting for the socialist candidate may look too risky. I hope I am surprised.

And what does it mean for this country? Well, I am not at all surprised that expectations have been set for Hillary in 2016. The press only sounds beneficent and contrite this time around, acknowledging that maybe they have regrets about what they and the party did to her in 2008. Bullshit. They know damn well that her chances of getting elected in 2016 are nearly zero. But pushing the timeline for her forward is an attempt to pacify the restless elements of the populace who see her as the only legitimate alternative to either Romney or Obama. At this point, it doesn’t even matter who wins the White House. Wall Street doesn’t see either of them as a threat.

In the meantime, they have just scored another victory in the JOBS bill where they can be less than transparent to investors who they hope to make new deals with. I think the idea behind this was to help small companies, like small biotechs, get investment capital. Small biotechs don’t really have a product to sell. They have ideas and beginnings of products. But development takes a lot of time and money and as the big pharmas have already found, you can sink billions of dollars into an idea and have it shot down by the FDA or siphoned off by a side effect that no one anticipated. So the risks are high. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the deal and in innovative industries like biotech, there are a lot of potential deals to be made.

And then there is correlation between bonuses and crashes. Ho says that record high bonuses on Wall Street frequently precede crashes. That’s not really surprising. It means that there is a frenzy of unchecked deal making and risk taking with large sums of money in some corner of the market where all of the investment bankers have been attracted like magpies to shiny things. All of the money has poured into this sector and bets have been placed for and against. Maybe the new rules will prevent overleveraging. Maybe they won’t. But there is one thing the bankers can count on- a steady stream of new funds from your 401K accounts to their hands that they can bet in a global casino. Pensions are so passe. 401Ks are the new black and you can be sure that there will be an even bigger push for the banks to get their hands on even more piles of money that are sitting around that no one seems to be using.

There is no goal. There is no plan. There is no strategy. It’s all, “What have you done for me since lunch?”.

The system is broken. Its entropic, unsustainable, moving at speed of fiber optic cables and out of control. The best thing we average Joe’s can do is to limit our own losses, get out while we can and sleep with the lights on.

The Strategy of No Strategy Part 2- Flexibility

This is the second part of the series reviewing Karen Ho’s book, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street.  Click here for part 1 on the “Culture of Smartness”.  In this summary,  I will describe each concept as it originated on Wall Street and then show how it has been translated to industry.  The industry I am using is Big Pharma because I think pharma has been one of the industries most adversely affected by Wall Street culture and whose demise is indicative of what will happen to the rest of the country if this culture is not reformed. Of course, Wall Street culture has permeated politics too.  I’ll get to that at the end.

Let’s start with some current news that on the surface doesn’t appear to have anything to do with employer “flexibility”.  Yesterday, the NYTimes featured an article about the sharp increase in retracted articles from scientific journals.  In some cases, the work is just shoddy, in some others, it looks like it was deliberately manufactured.  What’s going on?:

In October 2011, for example, the journal Nature reported that published retractions had increased tenfold over the past decade, while the number of published papers had increased by just 44 percent. In 2010 The Journal of Medical Ethics published a studyfinding the new raft of recent retractions was a mix of misconduct and honest scientific mistakes.

Several factors are at play here, scientists say. One may be that because journals are now online, bad papers are simply reaching a wider audience, making it more likely that errors will be spotted. “You can sit at your laptop and pull a lot of different papers together,” Dr. Fang said.

[...]

But other forces are more pernicious. To survive professionally, scientists feel the need to publish as many papers as possible, and to get them into high-profile journals. And sometimes they cut corners or even commit misconduct to get there.

Yet labs continue to have an incentive to take on lots of graduate students to produce more research. “I refer to it as a pyramid scheme,” said Paula Stephan, a Georgia State University economist and author of “How Economics Shapes Science,” published in January by Harvard University Press.

In such an environment, a high-profile paper can mean the difference between a career in science or leaving the field. “It’s becoming the price of admission,” Dr. Fang said.

The scramble isn’t over once young scientists get a job. “Everyone feels nervous even when they’re successful,” he continued. “They ask, ‘Will this be the beginning of the decline?’ ”

University laboratories count on a steady stream of grants from the government and other sources. The National Institutes of Health accepts a much lower percentage of grant applications today than in earlier decades. At the same time, many universities expect scientists to draw an increasing part of their salaries from grants, and these pressures have influenced how scientists are promoted.

“What people do is they count papers, and they look at the prestige of the journal in which the research is published, and they see how may grant dollars scientists have, and if they don’t have funding, they don’t get promoted,” Dr. Fang said. “It’s not about the quality of the research.”

Dr. Ness likens scientists today to small-business owners, rather than people trying to satisfy their curiosity about how the world works. “You’re marketing and selling to other scientists,” she said. “To the degree you can market and sell your products better, you’re creating the revenue stream to fund your enterprise.

Been there.  By the way, that part in bold is not by choice.  We didn’t go to school to learn marketing and business.  This is a role we’re being forced into to the detriment of our other work.

In the research industry, your chances of getting or retaining a job depends on your publication count.  And let me tell you, it’s not easy to have your work published.  Those of us in corporate labs have to run our submissions past a team of lawyers who may keep work on hold indefinitely.  There are many reasons for this.  Sometimes it’s to protect proprietary information or patents.  But while you’re waiting, you could be laid off- for having insufficient publications.  When I was laid off, I was involved in 2 active projects, one of which I had been working on since 2006.  We are just now getting around to publishing.

The scramble for publications is fierce.  People get really cut throat about them.  Your future may depend on being first author.  And when people can’t publish on their active projects, sometimes they end up writing crap on some trivial method development just so they can put something down on their performance goals worksheet.

So, what does scientific misconduct have to do with flexibility?

Karen Ho describes the working conditions of Wall Street as being constantly changeable.  Employees do not expect to be in a job for very long.  As an analyst, it’s expected that you will quit after 2 years and go get your MBA.  So, long term employment is really not expected in the lower levels.  But even 2 year commitments are rare.  Ho was laid off after being at her first job for only about 6 months.  Bankers Trust gave laid off workers grace time to find other jobs and Ho was able to transfer to another department within the company.  But the first lay off came as a shock to her, while other more experienced Wall Street workers just roll with it.

Layoffs are common on Wall Street and workers there pride themselves on their ability to adapt and change as if their “smartness” is some genetic asset that confers some phenotypic advantage that allows them to adjust to their new environments.  Survival of the smartest. When they get laid off from one job, they usually land another one pretty quickly somewhere else.  They just move their desk organizers across the street.

In economic downturns, layoffs are to be expected and they can look like a bloodbath.  But layoffs are routine in good times on Wall Street as well.  Wall Street uses good times to do “rank and yanks”, getting rid of their bottom 20% of performers and then going on a hiring spree at Princeton or Harvard. Sometimes Wall Street firms overdo it and layoff too many people in the very area of expertise they find out later that they should have retained.  That can cost them in institutional knowledge.  But they have the flexibility to hire new people to fill those spots or poach them from other companies.  It’s light, it’s quick, it’s flexible.

When Ho talked to her informants about the changeability, expansion and contraction of Wall Street, they tended to attribute it to a nebulous entity called “The Market”.  The market is not simply the Dow or geopgraphical activity.  The market is a combination of economics, financial industry trends and the people who work for the market.  In other words, Wall Street firms tend to follow trends.  If Merrill Lynch is ditching 20% of its workforce, all of the other institutions follow suit.  If one institution gets into collateralized debt obligations, all of the other ones do too.  So, when a particular market collapses, so does the need to keep people in particular jobs.  No biggie for the Wall Street worker.  All they need is a cube and a workstation.  They shift with the market.  Since they were hired for their prestigious pedigrees and connections and not their undergraduate specializations, they just learn a new area of finance and take it from there.

All that matters in the end is getting that bonus and making a high number of deals.  The pressure is always on to make the highest number of deals, to sell the highest number of securities, to arrange a giant merger.  Everything is quantified and correlated with the bonus.  To stay in the game, you need to keep up, make your numbers and be flexible.

So, when a Wall Street financial unit starts analyzing companies, it begins to wonder why it is that other industries can’t be as adaptable.  Why are workers clinging to their jobs like their lives depend on them?  If they were more flexible, they would be more innovative.  If scientists are as smart as they say they are, they’d be more productive or just get jobs somewhere else.

In the 90′s, those of us in the research industry started to notice an increase in the number of new trends in big pharma.  When one company decided that combichem was the next big thing, all companies jumped on the bandwagon.  When that changed to proteomics a few years later, everyone started chasing that.  Then genomics after that.  Then siRNA. etc, etc. The introduction of next big things was beginning to get ridiculous.  Usually, they were something discovered in academia that wasn’t quite ready for prime time, a get rich quick scheme talked up by some desperate manager who saw a presentation at a meeting, that was sold to the executives as the thing that would result in research churning out half a dozen blockbusters a year.  While we tried to figure out how to use these new tools and incorporate the data, we found that just as we were figuring things out, the fad was abandoned and a new one took its place.  Couple that with the rapidity of new biological discoveries and it made your head spin.

Then came the “rank and yank” performance evaluations where everyone’s work was reduced to a metric that could be measured.  How many compounds did you synthesize?  How many NMRs did you run?  How many crystals did you solve?  How many papers did you write and where were they published?  That last one became very important at one of the companies I worked for.  There was a hard number of papers that had to be written each year just to rank in the middle of the pack.  To get a decent raise or promotion, you had to publish in a prestigious journal and you had to be first author.  This resulted in a lot of writing and not as much science.  Your career and house and kid’s college fund were directly tied to how many papers were written.  Resources were hoarded because if you needed to run certain experiments for a method paper, you had to prioritize.  Should you spend a lot of time collaborating and helping your project team or run a bunch of LC Mass Specs to make sure you have the right number of data points for your paper?  Some people will manage to suck a good portion of limited department resources, like disk space on a server, for themselves, leaving the rest of the department scrambling for enough space to run their jobs or deleting their data at a moment’s notice.  These selfish people usually end up keeping their jobs, because they can get their work done without interruption and publish, so there’s incentive to be selfish and hobble your competition.Big blank spaces in the publications section of a CV due to active project limitations are stress inducers if you need to find a new job.

Eventually, the mergers and acquisitions, trend chasing, competition vs collaboration, and the increasing pressures from the FDA to find the perfect drug with zero side effects or risk a recall, started to have an effect on the bottom line of many pharmas.  And then there were all those cheaper scientists overseas who surely must be more productive.

The layoffs have always been a feature at pharma since my first days on the job back in the late 80s.  But they started to pick up in the 90s.  For research, we always operated with a hiring freeze.  Since 2007, the number of layoffs has been devastating with hundreds of thousands of scientists thrown out of work.  Many of us have been encouraged to find jobs at the small biotechs that have popped up lately.  The problem is that small biotechs have very high overhead.  Sometimes, they have to layoff early stage research staff when they move to a new stage of development.  It’s not unusual for scientists to jump from company to company and get laid off multiple times.  The problem is, unlike the Wall Street worker who sees this as normal, a scientist can’t simply pick up his equipment and move across the street.  There are costs associated with that.  As I have written before, journal articles for small companies and independent scientists are prohibitively expensive.  And modeling software?  The stuff I used to use on a daily basis when I was in a corporate lab cost millions of dollars a year for licenses.  That leaves me working with open source applications, some of which are decent, like bioinformatics tools that most governments make publicly available, and some, like computational chemistry tools, are not.  I always feel like my hands are tied when I have to do a docking run that used to take me minutes to setup and run and now takes me much, much longer to cobble together from cheap, available and generally inadequate parts.  Innovation has just taken a step backwards because a lot of us are forced to use stone age tools that we can afford when we used to use high tech stuff in a corporate lab.  Wall Street workers need only a cube and a computer.  We need a complete working infrastructure.

But the worst aspect of the flexibility model is that you can’t have a life as a scientist.  I mean, you can’t have a scientific life and you can’t have a life outside the lab.  When you’re forced to keep moving, your connection to the actual work is tenuous.  You can’t follow a project long enough to really understand what’s going on.  And some CROs don’t even want you to do that.  They just want you to do your one special thing and not think about what it means in the whole scheme of things.  That’s going to have a great impact on innovation because you can’t learn anything in a holistic sense or apply new understandings to new projects.  In a similar sense, the Wall Street worker also doesn’t have time to analyze their work, resulting in a different set of consequences.

Outside the lab, you can’t really have a family.  There’s no security in it.  You can never be sure that you’re going to be in one place long enough to settle into it.  Many of us have been told to relocate to Massachusetts if we want to find a job and many of us have said, “No, thank you”.  That means disrupting your domestic life and moving to another state where you might only have a job for a few months.  Then you’re hitting the pavement, marketing your “product”, which is yourself.  I’ve met a lot of scientists lately who have decided to not go to Cambridge and are leaving science altogether.  And if you’re always in danger of a layoff, there’s no point to buying a house or any big purchases.  Any money you can save needs to be stashed away in preparation for the next big down turn. In science, bonuses are not half or more of our compensation package so there’s considerably more insecurity than there is on Wall Street.  Sure, maybe if you have enough publications and graduate from the right university, you can find another job but it’s not like Wall Street where employees can afford to wait it out and jump into a new job when the market shifts.

This is the new workplace.  It is dynamic and you’re expendable.  Some corporations are headed towards a “weightless” model where they hire and fire contractors when they need to and to whom they have no long term financial obligations. Nevermind that it doesn’t work for your industry.  Nevermind that Wall Street analysts start working at age 23 while the average PhD chemist is over 30 before he or she gets his first paying job.  The average Wall Street worker has had 10 years to sock away a nest egg before he imposes his flexible workplan on your lab.

In the meantime, publications are everything.  And when the money is hard to come by and the equipment is available for a limited time only, mistakes will be made, corners will be cut and papers will be retracted.  That’s going to affect innovation and “shareholder value”, the next part of this series.

Wednesday: Melange

A mixture of things from around the web:

1.) Charles Pierce writes that Obama’s press conference yesterday featuring Slutgate and contraception left him uneasy.  In Standing Up for Sex, Pierce writes:

Not a simple, mumbling word about the right to decent health-care, let alone the right to choose. Given a golden opportunity to say flatly that he and his administration were foursquare behind these rights, he gave the whole thing a pass. I’m sure he’s got poll numbers that tell him not to say “abortion” in public but, damn, this was disappointing.

This is what I mean when I say that this issue can only be a political winner for the Democrats if they go out and make it one. How hard would it have been for him to say, “Look, it’s probably not a good time in history to be using the war metaphor, but there’s no question that the Republican party is a vehicle in an organized campaigh to roll back women’s rights in the most personal sphere of their lives, and, as long as I’m president, that won’t happen.”?

I’m glad he called Sandra Fluke. I just wish he’d show that he appreciates the incredible political gift she gave him.

Obama thinks his party affiliation speaks for itself and we should read into his statements what his real thoughts and intentions are.  And this worked so well in 2008.  Everyone thought he was a liberal even though he didn’t embrace liberal or even Democratic or New Deal principles.  Everyone thought he was an anti-war candidate even though this was all premised upon what he *might* have done had he actually been present at the IWR vote.  Everyone thought he was a feminist, which flew in the face of hard evidence that we watched and heard with our very own senses.  In the past four years, he has shown himself to be none of the things he was assumed to be so, and, as far as I’m concerned, we should not assume or presume that he is onboard with sex being guilt free for adult women.  More likely, he has no natural empathy for women in this regard so he’s more inclined to do what’s good for him politically and not for women socially.  And right now, he thinks it is good for him politically to reach out to evangelicals and the women’s vote will just flock to him because women are assuming he is not as bad as the Republicans.

I think he is just as bad, if not worse, because his attitude encourages complacency.  It will all be taken care of, don’t you worry.  A year from now, women are going to be kicking themselves for not being more demanding of him.  You’re only going to get a commitment from him under duress and until you hear him choke it out in a high squeaky voice, don’t assume anything.

2.) Speaking of beliefs that may or may not have any basis in fact, have you checked out the Richard Dawkins Belief Scale?  Unlike women’s rights, you don’t have to commit to a god or atheism.  It’s perfectly Ok to land somewhere along the scale.  I’m a 5.78324.  Some people might round that up.  Here it is:

  1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
  2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
  3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
  4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
  5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
  6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
  7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Assuming that there are not as many 1′s out there as the Beanie Boys would have you think, why should we allow the 1′s to run the country based on judeo-christian biblical principles?

3.) More on belief.  Pat Robertson may have exceeded his stupidity quota.  When asked on the 700 Club about why God kills people with tornados, he had this to say:

There ya’ go, tornado victims.  Let this be a lesson to you.  Don’t buy a farm in the middle of tornado alley.  Don’t be a person who earns a living in tornado alley either.  And woe to you on the west coast in the earthquake zone.  The kinfolk say, move away from there!  Californy is NOT the place you want to be.  Also, if you are anywhere where you could be swept away by a flash flood, get caught up in a hurricane or Nor’easter, burnt to a cinder in a wildfire, trapped in a heat wave, engulfed in a blizzard, frozen in a cold snap, eaten by wild animals or poisoned by insects and plants, or irradiated by a particularly unusual and strong solar flare, well, it’s your own damn fault.  Did God promise you a rose garden?  You should have bought one of the time shares in Glenn Beck’s underground bunker cities and retreated to it with your 6 months supply of dried ravioli and Tang.

I guess Stephanie Decker, who protected her kids from the tornados with her own body and lost her legs as a result, should be thankful that God didn’t demand more of a sacrifice for living in the wrong place.  But I have faith that with the help of doctors, physical therapists and prosthesis engineers, Stephanie *will* walk again.  Hang in there Stephanie.

4.) A couple of days ago, a PR person for Chris Viehbacher tried to do a What Chris Really Meant response to Chris’s insensitive and clueless presentation of the reasons why his company was getting rid of its own scientists and turning to cheap and desperate small company scientists for potential blockbuster drugs.

Now, Viehbacher’s point seems to be that small biotechs and mid sized companies are more nimble and innovative than big behemoth pharma companies so, and here’s the logic of the bonus class in all it’s glory, big pharma scientists just aren’t as good as those in smaller biotechs and therefore deserve to have their jobs eliminated.

This ignores two things that Viehbacher is either denying or completely ignorant of.  The first is that those of us who up until recently worked in big pharma until we were dumped for working in big pharma, did not start our careers in big pharma.  Nooooo, we were in medium pharma.  The first pharma I worked at only had 3 research sites and the one I worked at in Princeton was relatively small having about 400 people total working on about 5 different therapeutic areas.  It was all self contained with chemistry, biology, animal facilities, structural biology, analytical, scale up, everything in one building.  But then came the mergers and more mergers and we added more facilities and companies and satellite research centers in different companies and then we got consultants to come in every couple of years and rejigger everyone, just to keep it light and breezy.  Every time there was a merger, work would come to a screeching halt for two years so the managers could play musical chairs and find a department headship position, usually by doing a real Julius Caesar meets Brutus in the Senate scene.  So, big was never OUR idea.  It was the bright idea of the finance guys, the consultant guys and the Viehbacher guys who got big bonuses from every merger they made.

The second thing that undermines Viehbacher’s argument is that all of those big pharma scientists that he thought were no good are now working for the small companies and acedemic groups that Viehbacher is planning to rape.  Now that they’ve been liberated from the shackles of big pharma wage slavery, they are working more nimbly and innovatively at small biotechs and university labs with vastly reduced salaries and benefits.  And this must warm the cockles of Viehbacher’s heart enormously.

5.) Finally, Titli Nihaan, my new favorite internet chef (until #1 child gets her own show), shows us how to make a Cassoulet and gives us some French lessons as a bonus!  This is the halal version.  I tried it the other night but made some even leaner substitutions.  Delicious. Er, Magnifique!

Wall Street + Stock Buy Backs => Cookies of the Apocalypse

Greed has consequences.  The definition of success also has consequences.  When people judge their success in life by how much money they are making instead of what they contribute to the well being of the society they live in, they can have unintended consequences for other people who they don’t even know in fields they couldn’t care less about.

Let’s follow this trail, shall we?

Matt Taibbi writes another scathing critique on the lack of character on Wall Street.  This is where the worldview is developed and the flawed value system starts.  In this little snippet about John Paulsen and his incredible haul of obscene gobs of cash, we are to feel sympathy for the pain he has suffered for all the gobs of cash he lost on bets that didn’t pan out last year:

Look, the financial services industry should be boring. It should be quaint. Let’s take the municipal debt business. For ages, it was a simple, dull, low-margin sort of industry, in which banks arranged municipal bond issues and made small but dependable profits as cities and towns financed improvements and construction projects.

That system worked seamlessly for decades, until people like Sherman’s interview subjects suddenly decided to make the business exciting. You know what happens when you make municipal debt exciting? Jefferson County, Alabama happens. Or, on a macro level, Greece happens.

When making a few points on mere bond issues stops being enough, and you have to cook up crazy swap schemes and indices to bet against those schemes, ingenious scams allowing politicians to borrow billions of dollars that they will never in a million years be able to pay back, you might end up getting a few parks, schools, and subways in New York.

But what you get everywhere else is a giant clusterfuck that costs the rest of us years and even more billions of tax dollars to remedy.

This is what the protests are all about – it’s anger that Wall Street has been profiting from an imaginary economy that leaves bankers overpaid, but creates damage everywhere else. Sherman doesn’t get this. He seems to subscribe to the well-worn straw-man position that protesters are simply upset that bankers and financiers make a lot of money. Take for example his view on John Paulson, the hedge fund titan who was involved in Goldman’s infamous Abacus deal:

In October, a thousand protesters stood outside John Paulson’s Upper East Side townhouse and offered the hedge-fund billionaire a mock $5 billion check, the amount he earned from his 2010 investments. Later that day, Paulson released a statement attacking the protesters and their movement …. The truth was, Paulson was furious that the protesters had singled him out. Last year, he lost billions of dollars on bad bets on gold and the banking sector. One of his funds posted a 52 percent loss. “The ironic thing is John lost a lot of money this year,” a person close to Paulson told me. “The fact that John got roped into this debate highlights their misunderstanding.”

Hey, asshole: nobody misunderstands anything about John Paulson. They’re not mad that he made billions the year before, and they’re not happy that he lost money this year. They’re mad that the way he made his money in previous years – which involved putting together a born-to-lose portfolio of toxic mortgage bonds and then using Goldman Sachs to dump them on a pair of European banks, who in turn had no idea that Paulson was betting against them.

Matt Taibbi is using harsh curse words.  How declasse.  The fundies react with shock and horror.  Is there no civility on the internet?  Paulsen is rich.  Surely this man deserves respect.

Moving on.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline wrote a rather longish post for him about the pharmaceutical companies buying back stock in what looks like a desperate attempt to push up the stock price and keep more for the executives.  Lovely.  And this is made easier by assuring investors that they have cracked down on research costs, by golly.  We’ll have none of that wasteful spending here:

He has some figures from our own industry: From 1997 to 2009 “Amgen did
repurchases equal to 99 percent of R&D expenditures, Pfizer 67 percent, Merck 62
percent, and Johnson & Johnson 57 percent.” It could be worse – companies in the IT sector have often managed to spend even more than their R&D budgets on repurchases, partly because they increased the number of shares outstanding so hugely during the dot-com boom years.

One complication with the market-manipulation view is that stock buybacks don’t correlate very well with total stock returns. If anything, the correlation is negative: companies (and sectors) that spend the most on repurchases have lower returns. Of course, there’s a correlation/causation problem here – perhaps those returns would have been even lower without the buybacks. But there’s clearly no slam-dunk financial case to be made for repurchases.

Except one: that they’re often the easiest and least controversial use of the money. Companies get criticized if they sit on cash reserves, and they get criticized for missing earnings-per-share numbers. Why not try to address both at the same time? And without having to actually think very hard about what to invest in? I think that Pfizer’s Ian Read is being truthful when he says things like this:

Pfizer declined to make an executive available to discuss its policy. But in a statement, the company said it “remains committed to returning capital to shareholders through share buybacks and dividend payments.”

As for the cut in research spending in February, Pfizer said it has “accelerated our research strategy and made important changes to concentrate our efforts to deliver the greatest medical and commercial impact.”

In a conference call with analysts this month, Pfizer’s chief executive, Ian C. Read, said his company would “continually look” for acquisitions that would increase revenue growth. But in deciding how to use the proceeds from recent asset sales, he said “the case to beat is share repurchase.”

And that, truly, is a shame.

Oh, well, it’s not like the executives are going to stick around to see what a shame it is.  As the following animation suggests, they will be sitting on a beach in the Cayman Islands ideating and leaving the company to hobble toward some finish line on its own:

{{catching breath, wiping eyes, clearing throat}}  Ahem, geek humor and all that.  Too funny, or it would be if so many of us “ancient ones” weren’t out of work.

Tuesday: The state of science

Staph Aureas colonies growing on what looks like a blood agar plate

Guys, the state of science in this country is truly messed up.  Pharmageddon continues with the big research companies still laying off in high numbers, especially here in the US, and getting out of certain research areas. (Jeez, 2009 was a very bad year for US scientists.  58,000+ of us let go in an industry where hiring freezes have been the norm for over a decade.) Some of those research areas might be important to you even if you don’t know it right now.

For example, did you ever wonder how your great grandparents coped without antibiotics?  We’re only a couple of generations away from the dark ages when unchecked infections lead to gangrene and amputation, sepsis and death.  But have you ever wondered how little it would take to get that whole ball rolling?  Well, here’s one modern account that should chill you to the bone.

Meet Lucy Eades, youtuber extraordinaire.  Lucy has been documenting her family’s evolution in intimate detail for several years now.  Lucy and I have wildly dissimilar lives.  She’s young, blond, pretty and busy with three children under the age of five.  She’s into homebirths, cloth diapers and attachment parenting.  I like dropping in on her channel because it’s like watching a documentary on some exotic culture I will never visit.

Last November, just after Thanksgiving, her daughter Jacelyn scratched herself below the waistband of her underwear.    No biggie, right?  Wrong:

The day after on Saturday she asked why it was so itchy as she was trying to find comfort while rubbing & scratching at it. I talked to her about how wounds can itch as it heals & it’s best not to touch because any open wound could become infected & that would result in an ouchie…more so in kid friendly terms.

Sunday she pointed the area saying it hurt & upon inspection I noticed a pimple. Not sure if it was a pimple or not, ant bite, or what, but a small pimple look alike bump that hurt. Nothing more.

Monday morning after she woke we immediately looked it over & noticed a small black dot in the middle of it. Aside from that nothing else had changed. We were thinking maybe a spider bite? Never know when you stay in a hotel. Called the Dr and we brought her in later that day during one of their open “sick” appointment time frames. Dr said it could be staph, we’ll keep an eye on it. Since we had just battled staph (what 2 weeks ago? if that?) that it was a likely that even if it wasn’t staph it could turn to staph. She prescribed us some oral & topical antibiotics and gave us instructions for hibiclens, etc. for if we needed to use them eventually we wouldn’t have to bring her back in & expose her to more winter illnesses being passed around. She was fine at this point. Nothing hurt, we went about our day.

Tuesday-Wednesday is when my memory starts to fail me. At some point she becomes uncomfortable & it’s confirmed staph. We were told staph is on every surface every person & we naturally have it on our skin because of this.Some are effected while others are not. Some people with open wounds are more susceptible to staph than others for no known reason. Jacelyn is one I guess. We go fill the script at the pharmacy on Wednesday and resort back to warm soaks in the tub & attempting to squeeze out the infection with no success. Dr office swapped patient information & called in wrong prescriptions. We received anti-fungal meds.

Thursday we call the Dr office back still trying to get the right meds & to inform them that the infection appeared to be spreading. She had a fever, her hip/leg hurt, & it was no longer draining the way it should resulting in a massive hard rock like lump. Her skin was even starting to look raw in that area. They said she needed the antibiotics for a while & it would help. That evening I told Joel I wasn’t comfortable with the situation & I was taking her to the children’s hospital.

It was officially Friday by the time we arrived here (still here). She was running a 102 fever at arrival. They set up the IV’s & talked about procedure in depth with me. They had to sedate her using three different types of medicine. We talked about all our options, pros, cons, side effects, etc. The whole works. I apologized for being annoying but told him I wanted to be as informed in this process as I could be.

In walks 2 nurses, the Dr, a medic & 2 other employees. This goes from being scary to serious feeling. It was like one those ER episodes where 50 rush in the room all doing something different. One dose of sedation was enough to put a grown 200+ lb guy under.

What follows is a nightmare of bad reactions to sedation, two surgeries to remove dead tissue and drain the wound, and a hospital quarantine.  Jacelyn has MRSA, Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.  MRSA has developed resistance to standard antibiotics and some strains of MRSA are resistance to Vancomycin, which has been considered the last line of defense.  Ironically, MRSA is dangerous because of the overuse and improper use of antibiotics.  Nevertheless, you would think that the drug companies would be all over this area of research, designing new antibiotics or different approaches to combatting bacterial infections.

You would be wrong.  This is one of the therapeutic areas that big pharma can’t wait to dump, along with reproductive health and central nervous system (CNS) drugs.  That’s because they’re difficult, expensive to develop, have narrow safety profiles, or, in the case of women’s reproductive health, prone to class action lawsuits.  Women have been their own worst enemies when it comes to reproductive health.  Some feminists have a tendency to see every therapeutic agent as a weapon of the patriarchy to control their bodies.  As if.  And side effects are unavoidable, although we’re getting better.  But the cost of defending what was intended to cure has become so expensive that pulling out of these areas is more cost effective than sinking more money into research.

It takes a long time and a lot of clinical trials to get a new antibiotic approved.  Not so much with oncology where the life or death nature of the disease leads to speedier approval of new drugs. And in the case of cancer treatments, there are far fewer lawsuits when the drug doesn’t work out quite as well as hoped.  Patients’ families are grateful for any extension of life.  So, that’s where pharmaceutical companies are putting their money. It’s a callous and mercenary business decision.  It wasn’t always like this but this is what results after mergers, quarterly earning mania, a quirky, capricious, anachronistic FDA and the high cost of defending lawsuits have worked their own special magic for a couple of decades.  No more research on antibiotics.  Don’t expect that big pharma will care about your staph infections or birth control after you’ve sued their asses off.

Yes, they’re greedy bastards at the top but that’s a different topic.  They weren’t always this bad.

So, sports fans, we’re getting perilously close to the days when a simple break in the skin could kill you.  Lovely.

********************************

Katiebird sent me a link to this article about scientific publishing and plagiarism by two University of Kansas bioinformatics researchers.

In the technical world of bioinformatics, the two University of Kansas computer scientists were riding high in 2009.

Mahesh Visvanathan and Gerald Lushington published three articles with an international audience. They were invited to make a poster presentation at a conference in Sweden.

Although a lack of airfare kept them from going, their real problem wasn’t a tight travel budget — it was plagiarism.

Portions of all three of their articles had been lifted from other scientists’ work. The entire summarizing statement in their presentation had come from someone else’s journal article.

In an endeavor such as science that relies on original work and trustworthy information, plagiarism and fraud seem out of place. But misconduct is being detected with increasing frequency. And while it may be that the scientific community is just getting better at sussing out fraudsters, some scientists fear the problem is growing.

Competition among researchers has taken on a harder edge, they say. More scientists are competing for limited grant money, faculty appointments and publication in top journals. This intense rivalry makes it tempting for some to cut corners and fudge results.

The number of scientists caught committing fraud remains small, but each case can cause real harm, from wasting time and resources of other scientists who follow false leads to putting lives in jeopardy with bogus health findings.

There is a difference between the kind of plagiarism that the Research Works Act is supposedly trying to address where researchers frequently lift methods, diagrams and pictures from other papers routinely.  That’s a kind of excusable plagiarism because new work frequently is dependent on older work.  In that respect, the RWA could have a chilling effect on scientific publishing if it were rigorously enforced.  It’s quite another thing when your conclusions and whole paragraphs of explanatory text are lifted straight out of someone else’s publication.

But the pressure to publish is intense and, unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there who rationalize about what they’re doing.  While I can’t comment on how rife the academic world is with examples of plagiarism from other people’s publications, I suspect that the practice is alive and well in the corporate setting where the Wall Street financier’s value system has trickled down to the laboratories.  Well, you can hardly blame the more senior people for doing it or rationalizing about it later.  Their pedigree and PhD creates a field of excellent and  superior brainwaves around them that the more junior people can’t help but pick up and be influenced by even when the senior person has done little to nothing on the project.  Sort of like Lady Catherine DeBourgh in Pride and Prejudice who credits herself with a sensitive prodigy’s talent in music and would have been a great musician had she only learned to play.  Or the rationalizer’s work/family circumstances are more important than the person’s who actually did the work.  Or the rationalizer needs a green card.  Or <fill in the blank>.

If you have the power to steal a colleague’s work, the reasons for doing so aren’t hard to conjure up.  It’s your word against theirs.  With the patent lawyers sitting on publications and project data for so long, it’s easy to slap your name on a paper or patent when the actual inventor is out of the way.  All the skullduggery and credit stealing happens before the paper ever hits the journal or patent office.  Who’s going to know?  I’ve even heard that in some companies and departments credit is awarded to favorite underlings like a reward for loyalty.   Those favorites can swoop down on a project in its final stages and hog all of the years of credit to themselves at the last minute.  You’d think this would be an ethical problem requiring accountability and punishment. Not so.  It’s just the way things are done.  Not all companies operate this way but the current layoff environment makes it more common and brazen.  Yep, research is a sick business.

Well, it will all sort itself out in the end and the researchers who are left can always go into sales if they are ever exposed.

Science is baaaaaad  for you, children, Very bad.  You’ll spend years working and studying on project for which you will get no credit and end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Run away! Run Away!

*************************************

Susie Madrak cites a post today about how 3 female regulators’ warnings about the impending financial crisis were ignored.

Bies was a central bank board member from 2001 to 2007. Several times in the transcripts she said she was worried about the housing bubble.

Bies warned fellow board members that exotic mortgages — for instance, negative amortization loans in which balances become bigger and not smaller over time — were too dangerous for consumers.

She warned about the Wall Street-created securities backed by risky mortgages.

“I just wonder about the consumer’s ability to absorb shocks,” she said at Fed meeting in May 2006.

“The growing ingenuity in the mortgage sector is making me more nervous as we go forward in this cycle, rather than comforted that we have learned a lesson. Some of the models the banks are using clearly were built in times of falling interest rates and rising housing prices. It is not clear what may happen when either of those trends turns around.”

Later in 2006 she told Fed board members: “A lot of the private mortgages that have been securitized during the past few years really do have much more at risk than investors have been focusing on.”

Bies is an economist and was a former Tennessee banker. But the two most powerful men at the Fed and the Fed staff dismissed her concerns.

That May meeting was Ben Bernanke’s second as chairman of the Fed. He said the cooling off of the housing market was a “healthy thing.” And that “so far, we are seeing, at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market.”

In June 2006, Tim Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that “we see a pretty healthy adjustment process under way. … The world economy still looks pretty robust to us.”

A Fed staff report said: “We have not seen — and don’t expect — a broad deterioration in mortgage credit quality.”

Tim Geithner, Tim Geithner… Where have I heard that name before?  No, no don’t tell me.  Let me work this out…

Tol’ja

White House vs Women: Joe Biden Does it Wrong

Obama and Women: Two views

Um, I’m glad that the rest of the blogosphere is starting to pay attention to the way womens’ expertise is ignored in the public sphere and especially by the Democratic White House and party in general.  We here at The Confluence have been covering this very thing for a couple of years now, including one post that cited the story about the female musicians who get orchestra seats after they’ve auditioned behind a screen.   Wow, that’s an old reference.  You’d have to look long and hard to find it, unless someone already found it for you in other posts, like:

The Gender Gap and Female Bodied People

Yeah, why *did* we do that?

WTF?? Another example of how Sexism costs us all

Bairly Downgrading the FDIC

There are many more on the topic.  Try keywords “Sexism Costs” or “Costs of Sexism”.  Well, it’s not like it’s plagiarism or anything.

Unless someone is going to say they invented the Plum Line Metric too.  (that would be here, and here as well) Then I will have to raise a snit.

Welcome Susie!  We will send out our complimentary new members package complete with white sheet (‘cos an accusation of racism is just around the corner) and you starter pack of hormone replacement therapy.   No, no, don’t thank us.  Most members don’t.

Sunday shorty on SOPA

Update: This has probably occurred to others but just hit me that SOPA is really just an election year shakedown.  The Republicans are raking in money from the media congloms while the Democrats are raking in money from, er, everyone.  It’s no lose legislation, or so they think.  It’s like playing with fire and the average American is going to get burned.

Can we get rid of all of them?

**************************

Politico reports (or reimagines) that Obama is walking a thin line on SOPA.

I know, I know, stop laughing.  When has Obama ever walked a thin line on  any legislation that the major media conglomerates want so badly they are nearly peeing themselves with anticipation?  AND it’s an election year.  Can’t you just see him weighing his options?  Should he piss off Google, Wikipedia and Mark Zuckerberg who are trying to keep the internet relatively free of interference so it can continue to grow and flourish, or Disney, Sony and the other media conglomerates who refuse to evolve?  The bottom line is the thin line he’s looking at. Donations, donations, donations.

Says Politico:

The administration did not take a definitive position on SOPA or PIPA on Saturday. But it was clear that the White House — while calling pirated movies and knockoff pharmaceuticals on the Web “a real problem” in need of a legislative solution — isn’t enamored of either bill.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” the administration officials said. “Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. “

Yeah, just like NDAA should not include innocent US citizens who are mischaracterized as terrorists just because they protest.

Ok, I’m just not following the pharmaceutical industry’s angle on this.  But that may be because the industry’s lobbying group is listening to its IT departments’ recommendations on how to keep proprietary information proprietary.  From a scientist’s point of view, this could be a big mistake- for the scientists while providing a useless placebo to the MBA class who think they finally have it all nailed down.

For one thing, Big Pharma’s IT departments are bloated organisms that do one thing extremely well: service the MBAs at the expense of R&D.  Everyone must have the same stupid image of Windows on their desktops, while scientific applications, which is what you might *think* are business critical, are treated like redheaded stepchildren.  “Linux?  How do you spell that?”  No, seriously, I actually had that question from the Helpless Desk one time.  When we point out that it might behoove them to get a separate system admin to service the in silico sciences people, they always scream that it’s going to cost too much and they give us a part time contractor without a system password.  Then, they turn around and hire some flunky who will maintain a version of Internet Explorer that died sometime during the Jurrasic.  In other words, the people the MBAs have been laying off have been the wrong people but since IT keeps Excel and the email services functioning, they were more than happy to pour obscene gobs of cash into the Microsoft money pit.  The system is not secure, it’s out of date, and IT takes forever to update and secure anything.  SOPA is not going to help keep the bad guys out of the corporate intranet.  Everyone knows this but the guys in the executive suites.

Secondly, the corporate lawyers who are supposed to be keeping up with technology so they can tailor contracts accordingly, can’t handle anything outside of a Windows environment.  I heard about this problem last year when I went to a conference on Proteins in San Diego last year.  There were several sessions on computational environments and everyone had the same complaints.  The legal eagles in the R&D departments understood that Amazon’s cloud service hired much better security experts than the Big Pharma folks could ever hope to find.  The R&D legal eagles had no problem signing off on cloud service contracts and new technologies.  It was the corporate legal team that stumbled, again and again, because they were used to Microsoft contracts and anything new looked like Martian to them.  How does SOPA address either of these issues?

Then there is the issue of outsourcing your work to China.  Ahhhh, maybe THIS is the problem.  Well, yes, this is a problem.  This is what you get when you *think* you can keep a few “stellar” {{snort!}} designers and intellectual property here in the US, kill off the careers of all of the other people who once did the design and lab work and ship the hands on work off to China.  For some strange reason, the MBA class appears to believe that people who work in laboratories are mindless drones who assemble drug molecules like a factory worker assembles widgets.  What they neglect to understand is that people who go into science because they actually like it are probably not going to be happy as widget assemblers.  Their minds are too active for that.  Not only are their minds too active, they tend to start wondering why they’re living like slaves and doing this very hard work for some rich asshole MBA in Connecticut.  Are they going to be content to just look at the structure of the molecule they are supposed to make and never wonder what it’s for?  Or let’s say they know what the target is.  Are they supposed to just sit on that information and not try do some scaffold hopping and lead optimization?  What’s to prevent them from doing that?  The contract?  And that’s going to be enforceable by whom?  China?  Riiiighht.  It’s almost as if the MBAs cannot possibly imagine that anyone other than themselves would be any good at exploiting loopholes and outright theft. They might speak a different language but it would be foolish to assume that they don’t know opportunity when they see it.

As it turns out, you can’t ship your lab work off to India and China for a quick profit the way the MBAs thought they could.  We tried to tell them this but they wouldn’t listen.  It takes a long time and lots of hard work to get a new drug.  You can hire cheaply there but you will have to hire more people to get the economy of scale in research you were hoping for and *still*, you will be at the mercy of the fricking organism.  Cells just do not cooperate the way you think they should and there’s no performance incentive scheme you can chain them to in order to make them docile and compliant.  Threatening to starve cells if they don’t produce doesn’t usually work.  In the meantime, you have completely dismantled your US research infrastructure, poured billions into new facilities in Asia and your pay off may still be decades away.  Congratulations.  You may have to go into hiding in a few years when the stockholders come after your heads.  Heads up, Congresscritters, you really need to address this NOW. Novartis just laid off a bunch more this week and it’s not over yet.  There are hundreds of thousands of researchers out there who can’t find work and we are just going over the patent cliff.  Wheeeee!

So, what does this have to do with SOPA?  Damned if I know.  Whatever it is the management of Big Pharma is trying to accomplish will probably just backfire on them.  They haven’t had a very good track record in the last 15 or so years.  And now that they’ve fired us all, there won’t be anyone else to blame.

In the meantime, what can we expect of Obama?  I imagine it will go something like his recent signature on the NDAA.  He will express reluctance and regret and deep reservations.  He’ll be torn.

And then he’ll sign it.

Unless it doesn’t pass at all.  I hear that Jan. 18 is an internet blackout day.  Hmmm…

Heads Up, Research Professionals

Believe it or not, no one knows you exist.  Oh, some people have vague notion of your existence, but it’s on the level of how pre-packaged chicken ends up in your grocer’s meat department chiller.  Clearly, somebody shrinkwrapped the suckers but all the grody chicken shit details are sanitized for your protection.  In a similar way, prescription drugs just sort of magically appear on the pharmacy department shelves.  And they are always produced by some big, evil Big Pharma company.  {{boo, hiss, boooooo!}}  And while even *we* are disgusted by the behavior of all some of our companies’ CEOs (see below for more on this), the CEOs have about as much knowledge of how drugs are discovered as the average Joe the Plumber.  Most people (and pharma executives)do not see the years and years (and years) of hard work, and SciFinder searches and hours in the lab and repeated failures and serendipitous eureka! moments that are subsequently dashed to smithereens by a CHO cell receptor that simply refuses to cooperate or the dog liver enzyme assay that stays stubbornly stuck on an ambiguous borderline measurement.  (There, there, don’t cry.  It happens to everyone.)

But YOU are like that mythical chicken sexer at a big mysterious chicken farm.  Most people don’t see that part of the chicken making procedure.  You do not really exist in any tangible way.

This is a problem for us.  Because as you know and I know, the Research industry has been devastated by clueless CEOs who love their sales and marketing departments but see YOU as the equivalent of field hands.  You may work with your brains all the time but if you work with your hands at all, you become the hired help.  While the executive cafeterias have dozens of expertly prepared lunch choices, nutritionally balanced, full of color and flavor ,and access to a registered dietician who will customize your menu (I actually witnessed this one day), YOU will be served the equivalent of a high calorie meat and potatoes meal in your dingy cafeteria at the “labs” down the road.  Yes, you may as well be a Welsh miner grabbing a tiddy oggie on your way down the shaft from which you will eventually emerge covered in coal soot. Your parking lot consists of Dodge Caravans and Nissan Sentras.  THEIR parking lot has dozens of shiny new BMWs and Lexus SUVs that start a $50000 a pop in spite of a shockingly insufficient number of cup holders.  You wear a labcoat with the  spreading blotch of something yellow on the edge of the right pocket.  THEY wear suits.  You spent your college years in labs that were supposed to last three hours but, er, didn’t because you knocked over the titanium tetrachloride in your glove bag and couldn’t see what you were doing and somebody dumped their sodium sand in the sink (it wasn’t me).  THEIR labs consisted of how much beer they could fit into one of those yard long funnels.

You get the point but if you didn’t, here it is: They have a very misplaced view of their worth to the company, as well as an inflated conception of their own personal self worth.  They do not give a shit about you because to them, the chicken shows up shrinkwrapped.  Do you ever see them coming down to the lab to see how things are going?  Can you even imagine one of those condescendingly, snippy women from accounting or purchasing talking to you nicely as if you were a normal human being deserving of respect, breathing the solvent scented air?  No, of course not.  The bigwigs only see you as they flyover in their helicopters.  Any real on site inspection happens after you go home (You have to be finishing your work past 7pm to catch the whomp-whomp-whomp of their whirlybirds).

But what you may be surprised to find out is that the left doesn’t give a shit about you either.  I have been beating my head against a brick wall trying to get the attention of bloggers who really should know better to get the word out about how our industry has been devastated.  I have been talking to people until I am blue in the face to get them to understand how many hundreds of thousands of us have been laid off and are underemployed or working in contract positions for vastly reduced salaries and benefits.  But what do I hear back?  Silence.  The silence is deafening.  In fact, I get the distinct impression that some of the people on the left who should be extremely concerned with our labor problems think that we should be ashamed of what we do.  It is hard for me to believe that the left could be so incredibly heartless and dim about this but for some mysterious reason, the fact that you work and study hard to find actual cures for people is a shameful thing.  They have this “holier than thou” idea of what constitutes an honorable profession and we ain’t it. These people on the left think that because you work for the assholes up the street (or you have worked for them), that you are responsible for the increasingly boneheaded and greedy decisions they make.  They don’t understand that you have kids and mortgages and retirements of your own and that drugs come shrinkwrapped only after you’ve beaten your head against a wall for half a decade before you pass it along to the clinical people.

I thought 2008 was bad.  This is worse.  The level of concern they have for you is truly reprehensible.  Not only that but I have actually spoken to many average Joes who seem to think that STEM workers’ job prospects are unlimited.  Yes, I know, it’s incredible.  They think that the world is our oyster.  We can just breeze into any lab in the country and demand a job for a high salary.  It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.  The news media has swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker once again.  Oh, it will sink in eventually when the number of students who want to get a job in chemistry dwindles to zero because you won’t be able to convince a 20 year old to study organic chemistry, molecular biology, calculus and linear algebra for four years to wind up making $12/hour with no bennies and be happy they’ve got that.  You would think that students who are smart enough to study STEM majors will be smart enough to figure out that there’s no living wage in it anymore.  I’m not sure that the politicians and business people pushing the “We need more STEM workers!” line have figured it out yet.  But by that time, your career will be ruined and you will have moved on to reupholstering flea market furniture for a living or teaching the chemistry you could do in your sleep to class of suburban brats.  *Your* dream job of bliss in a lab discovering the wonders of nature are over.

So, do not expect anyone else to get the word out that you are in as much trouble as any other laid off worker in the country.  Nobody knows you exist.  You will have to make yourselves visible.  That means talking to strangers on a train or going to an occupation or marching in the street with your labcoat on.  That’s what it will take.  The message *is* finally trickling out in dribs and drabs.  My face to face conversations have been quite successful.  Once people understand what is happening, they are generally quite alarmed and sympathetic.  And in the end, this is not harder than getting up in front a bunch of cocky assholes you work with to explain in 30 minutes what ground breaking work you have been doing for the last six months.

As it happens, there is a march in NY City this afternoon.  Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you.  I’ve done several marches already and it’s fun.  But to make our point, we need as many people in labcoats to go as possible.  If you can’t make this one, plan to attend another one.  We are the 99% too, fergawdsakes.  We don’t make anywhere near the salaries of the 1%.  We don’t live off our investments and once they kick us out of the system, it’s bloody hard to get back in.  So, get out there and show them where those chickens come from.

*******************

On a related note, I followed a link from Derek Lowe’s blog In the Pipeline (make a note of it, left blogosphere) about the Nance Trophy nominations for the worst Biotech CEO of 2011.  There are several worthy nominees but my favorite has to be this guy:

Gregory Divis Jr., K-V Pharmaceutical

Divis wrote the CEO manual this year on how to screw up a new drug launch in every conceivable way. His was a performance of idiocy on a grand scale that may never be matched. Even Dendreon’s Gold looks like a drug-marketing superstar next to Divis.

The drug launch Divis botched was Makena, an injectable form of the hormone progesterone used to reduce the risk of premature birth. For years, doctors have been able to prescribe the same drug made by compounding pharmacies, costing just $10 to $20 per injection. K-V priced Makena at $1,500 per injection.

K-V also claimed market exclusivity for Makena because the drug was granted orphan status by FDA, so the company’s lawyers threatened to sue any compounding pharmacy that dared continue to manufacture the cheaper version.

Divis’ aggressive tactics backfired big time. Doctors got mad, worried that their patients would no longer be able to afford the medicine they needed. The March of Dimes accused K-V of profiteering at the expense of at-risk pregnant women. The FDA questioned the company’s tactics. Politicians blasted K-V and called for investigations into the company’s marketing practices.

Needless to say, the Makena launched bombed. K-V was forced to backtrack and cut the drug’s price, but even that conciliatory gesture was met with skepticism and scorn.

Friends, that is unmitigated shamelessness in all of its glory.  It’s hard to top it.  Which bright, young Wharton graduate thought of acquiring a generic drug at $10 per dose and remarketing it for $1500 per dose?  Those are the kind of people who attend Obama fundraisers because that kind of pricing strategy takes a certain kind of audacity. That takes a coldblooded cost-benefit analysis of how much people would be willing to pay to keep their babies out of the neonatal ICU.
Karma is a bitch.  It turns out that women and their doctors would find perhaps less effective and riskier alternatives than pay $1500 a pop for a $10 a dose drug.  But it’s not just the patients and their children who will suffer.  Nooooo, now whatever research staff K-V actually has, will feel the effects of the catastrophic failure of the bizness wunderkind.  This is the pattern in Big Pharma.  Someone makes a bad acquisition, puts all of their money on a drug that doesn’t get approval while ignoring every other project, or invests in some “get rich quick” promising but undeveloped technology in Massachusetts hoping for money for nothing and their chicks for free.  And when it all falls apart, the labrats get the ax in order to maintain “shareholder value”.  Typical.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to get more cynical and greedy than K-V.  My vote goes to Gregory Divis Jr.

**********************

Lipitor went off patent yesterday.  Good luck to all of the labrats working at Pfizer.  I mean, all of the ones that are left.  That weren’t laid off when Wyeth was bought by Pfizer.  Which were every single one of my friends and former colleagues.  {{sigh}}

Anyway, good luck to you all.  I see that the share price gapped up this morning.  But as you know, they’ll use any excuse when the time comes.  Hang in there.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 433 other followers