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

 

Hoffman-LaRoche Nutley, NJ- recently shuttered.

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

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

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

The place where I spent the best years of my life

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

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

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it is broken.

UVa disaster continues: One of the top 13 professors has resigned

Read the resignation letter from University Professor Bill Wulf (Computer Science).  It’s a beauty.  It reminds me of one of those letters that your write in a fever and then debate whether to send or not.

Here’s a snippet:

Dean and Interim President Zeithaml,

By this email I am submitting my resignation, effective immediately. I do not wish to be associated with an institution being as badly run as the current UVa. A BOV that so poorly understands UVa, and academic culture more generally, is going to make a lot more dumb decisions, so the University is headed for disaster, and I don’t want to be any part of that. And, frankly, I think you should be ashamed to be party to this debacle!

 [rather impressive bio goes here]

In short we have extensive experience that spans academia, executive positions in the private sector, government, and board memberships. So we deeply understand the proper conduct of academic administration and the proper oversight of that administration by a board, In my opinion the BOV has perpetrated are the worst example of corporate governance I have ever seen.

To repeat_- I resign. I want no part of this ongoing fiasco.

Bill Wulf

Wm. A. Wulf University Professor, Dept. of Computer Science University of Virginia, and President Emeritus, National Academy of Engineering

Bill Wulf is not a slacker.  It’s unclear whether his wife intends to follow him.  There are other tweet rumors that the Vice Rector, Mark Kington was also in the process of has resigned. The vice rector is the second ranked member of the Board of Visitors who forced Sullivan to resign.  Governor McDonnell of Virginia,  appears to be cautiously critical of the board’s actions.  But half of the board members are his appointees.

And what of the interim president who was appointed today to take Sullivan’s place?

Zeithaml will take a leave of absence from the McIntire School during his tenure as interim president. In March, Bloomberg Businessweek ranked the McIntire School as the No. 2 undergraduate business program in the country, and the No. 1 MBA feeder school.

He specializes in the field of strategic management. He joined the McIntire School in 1997.

It sounds like the university community knows *exactly* what’s going on, who is doing it and why.  This isn’t about change.  It’s a corporate coup of MBA management assholes who are going to restructure the University to be more attentive to their needs.  They know nothing about academia but they have a lot of experience with management techniques.  Gawd help UVa.  They’re going to need it.

If UVa doesn’t have an Occupy group, now’s a good time to start one.  If they were located closer to a major metropolitan area, they’d be getting recruits to help make some noise.  But Charlottesville is kind of isolated.  Nevertheless, I hope the protestors get the attention they deserve.  When it can happen at UVa, no university is safe from the bonus class.

Update: the more I read about the forced resignation of Sullivan, the weirder this story gets.  A couple of sources (Here and here) are reporting that the board of Visitors did not meet to take a vote to get rid of Sullivan, that there was no unanimous vote and that Rector Dargas has been planning this resignation for months in secret without any faculty input.

Liquefaction

I’m on the way to the garage this morning.  Yellowish oily liquid is seeping from the left front tire area.  Could this be a symptom of imminent failure?  I’ve noticed another expensive sounding noise from my front wheel drive on my commutes to Philly this week.  The last thing I want is to be stranded on 95 during rush hour.

{{sigh}}

Some interesting things on the interwebs to look at:

Atrios is doing his Top Ten Wankers of the Decade.  These are really good.  Check out who he’s tagged so far and pray you don’t make his top ten list.

8th Runner Up : Richard Cohen

9th Runner Up: Megan McArdle

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

Yesterday, Digby featured a clip from Chris Hayes show on MSNBC where his panelists discussed what is wrong with those people on Wall Street.  The most interesting panelist was Karen Ho, professor of anthropology at University of Minnesota, who conducted some field work on Wall Street while she was employed there as a management analyst.  She wrote it all down in a book called Liquidated, An Ethnography of Wall Street.  (If you’re going to download an ecopy, go with Amazon.  It’s $10 cheaper than iBooks.  No audible version available.  Dang!)

I read a bit of it last night before I fell asleep and Ho and I come to strikingly similar conclusions.  Hard to believe that this post it a year old already but check out my farewell on my last day of work last year after I was laid off.  You don’t need to be an anthropologist to see what’s going on but all of the background research helps.  Basically, what we’re seeing is the trickle down effect of the finance industry’s management and compensation system on the rest of corporate life.  The finance industry values “increasing shareholder value” (or at least it says it does) and all incentives are directed towards that goal.  Long term productivity strategies are chucked out the window because the finance guys and the corporate CEOs have to satisfy quarterly expectations.  It’s my grasshopper theory.  They’ll keep eating away until there’s nothing left and they don’t care what happens afterwards because of IBGYBG (I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone).

Now, how these assholes got to be in charge is the territory of the anthropologist.  Here’s what I am seeing in the pharma industry.  You only get a job these days if you a.) graduated from an ivy league university or other prestigious lab, b.) you know the right people and they offer to mentor/protect you (it helps if you are in the possession of a Y chromosome) or c.) play political games with the confidence of a grand master.  None of those three things guarantees that you will be good at discovering groundbreaking new drugs.  Trust me on this.  I’ve met ivy league PhDs fresh out of school and they need seasoning.  Industry is a whole different animal than graduate school.  I don’t care how smart you are, translating that smartness to practical drug discovery is an art.  Some master it quickly, some take more time.  But an ivy league degree is no guarantee of success.  It could mean that the candidate is so burned out by the time he/she gets a decent salary that the best years are behind them, but I digress.

What seems to matter is the perception of “smartness”.  A person with this quality can do no wrong.  Pedigree and connections are essential for this perception and as you can imagine, if you are from a working class background, it is much, much harder to obtain these things.  You may not have the economic means to stick it out for 10 years to get your PhD or you may not have been able to get into the best colleges.  You’re probably not a legacy or part of some favored ethnic group.  In other words, it’s harder to get the pedigree or connections you need.  We are rapidly devolving back to Jane Austen’s world where people fight for a “living” and socialize with the expectations of making favorable “connexions” to get that living and where where your relatives are on the social ladder is likely to save or doom you.  Your intrinsic worth or aptitude with learning new things or hard work and achievements are not necessarily going to save you.  A lot depends on your willingness to kiss up to the level above you and your ability to keep credit for your own work.  Not an easy task because if you don’t already fit among the “smart” class, your own work looks like luck or the work of other people.

Ho’s book also explains how it is that we ended up with the crazy and insecure working life most corporate employees live in.  We are always worried about the next layoff.  The pace of work is exhausting.  You don’t realize it when you’re in it.  It’s only after you’ve been away from the toxic environment that you realized how much stress your body has been under from the constant restructurings, mergers, downsizing and increased workload burden.  And at the bottom of it all, you’re constantly made to feel like you’re only a drag on the bottom line.  It looks like I wasn’t imagining it when I got the feeling that the executives up the road considered the research staff to be little more than the laborers who worked with their hands.  It was obvious in the way we were spoken to whenever we had to go outside the lab environment to get something done.  It was apparent in the percs.  Their cafeteria was better, no question about it, and they didn’t pay more for that.  They had a nicer and bigger gym, better classes.  They were able to mail their personal packages to Europe at a discount. They stopped letting the lab staff do that.  The computers were set up to make life easier for the marketing department.  If it made life a lot more difficult for the chemists, too f^&*ing bad.  We were told to stop whining or risk our jobs.  In fact, our jobs were made much harder by the absolute disinterest of the executive branch.  Research just got to be one workaround after another and lots of them.

We are seen as expendable.  I think the executive class has made a huge mistake assuming that those of us who have been liberated will be so ingenious without money that we will make discoveries in our garages that they can swoop down and buy for pennies on the dollar.  It’s not as easy as they think.  In fact, our jobs are much harder than they gave us credit for.

And I hate to bring up politics at this point but after reading just the opening chapters of Ho’s book, it becomes pretty clear that the Obama administration is infested by the “smartness” crowd.  Indeed, Obama himself is a prime example of this class.  It is no wonder that Larry Summers was one of Obama’s appointees.  Summers is the former president of Harvard and is on the board of advisors of hedge funds like DE Shaw, run by a billionaire biologist.  Pedigree, pedigree, pedigree.

Gotta go.  Will let you know how the book turns out.  Should be interesting.  But everything I’ve read so far has been independently confirmed by the research staffs of the major big pharmas.  I’m not sure what can be done about it.  I guess we’ll have to wait until the players are gone.

Later taters.

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