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      We’re down to street fighting in Donetsk.  The Russian leaders resigned in the last two weeks.  The rebels appear to be done, at least in terms of their conventional military phase (of course, I could be wrong depending on how much stomach Ukrainian troops have for house to house fighting).  It seems like that would [...]
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This week in STEM: Annnnd a NEW round of job cuts!

This morning, Microsoft announced a new round of job cuts.  It recently acquired Nokia and that seems to be where the bulk of the 18,000 hits are going to come from.  Let’s try to parse why they’re doing this, shall we?  Here’s an explanation from new CEO Satya Nadella:

The larger-than-expected cuts are the deepest in the company’s 39-year history and come five months into the tenure of Chief Executive Satya Nadella, who outlined plans for a “leaner” business in a public memo to employees last week.

“We will simplify the way we work to drive greater accountability, become more agile and move faster,” Nadella wrote to employees in a memo made public early Thursday. “We plan to have fewer layers of management, both top down and sideways, to accelerate the flow of information and decision making.”

The size of the cuts were welcomed by Wall Street, which viewed Microsoft as bloated under previous CEO Steve Ballmer, topping 127,000 in headcount after absorbing Nokia earlier this year.

“This is about double what the Street was expecting,” said Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. “Nadella is clearing the decks for the new fiscal year. He is cleaning up part of the mess that Ballmer left.”

The goal is to simplify the work process.  That sounds good.  Everyone likes simplicity.  It makes work easier to deal with if the path forward is cleared of unnecessary complexity and clutter.  But that’s not really why they’re simplifying, is it?  The goal of the simplification is actually to “drive greater accountability”.  On the surface, this also seems reasonable until we stop to consider, accountable to whom?  If you’ve been paying attention in the last decade, this usually refers to shareholders.  Shareholders want greater accountability.  Does that mean they want a bunch of reports and retrospective analyses to peruse at their leisure to make sure everything is being done with an eye towards simplicity, agility and speed?  Probably not.  Accountability is generally a code word for shareholders wanting to see that they’re not spending a penny more on people than they absolutely have to so that they can increase the amount of money they can hoard get for their shares.  It will be up to these 18,000 people to account for their existence.

It sounds like they’re going to get rid of management- everywhere.  Good luck with that! </snark>

Finally, we see that Steve Ballmer left a mess.  Not sure what that’s all about since I’m not in the software side of tech and I only use Microsoft products under duress.  But just because the company now has 127,000 people doesn’t mean that some of them necessarily have to go.  Unless they need to be accountable, of course.  I’m sure this comes as no surprise to the workers at Nokia but no one forced Microsoft to buy them.

So, to recap, Microsoft buys struggling cell phone manufacturer Nokia, drinks its smooth and tasty patent milkshake and discards the worker bees because they are no longer sufficiently accountable.

If anyone is still wondering why the US doesn’t make anything worth exporting, look no further than this layoff announcement and the rest of the carnage happening at IBM, Cisco, Intel and Hewlett-Packard.  It looks like a bloody hemorrhage this month.  There will be a lot of tech workers hitting the virtual pavement.  Contrast this with the way Germany handles its STEM workers.  When times get tough, they reduce their hours to part time and keep their wages high.  That way, when the economy recovers, they can rev their engines up again and work productively with a work force that has not lost its critical skills.

German shareholders and the government work together in a smart way to ensure they have the skills to compete in the market later.  American shareholders and government?  ehhhhhh, not so much.  Finland (the home of Nokia) must be thrilled with Microsoft’s announcement, even though they must have been expecting it since the acquisition.

Someone should tell the Microsoft people to stop referring to its workforce as a “mess” that needs to be cleaned up.

In the meantime, Derek Lowe wrote another post about the prospects of new Chemistry PhDs.  It looks like the number of post docs has gone down in recent years and the number of unemployed PhDs has gone up.  So, to recap, you spend 4 years as an undergrad and about 5-7 years getting your PhD in a very difficult subject that demands sharp, innovative thinking and many thousands of hours of lab work and what do you get for your hard work?  Not much.

Paraphrasing what a former colleague told me in 2009, when it comes right down to it, the reason why employers say they can’t find good help anymore is because what they want, what they really, really want, is a new graduate with 25 years of experience.  I would add, and someone who they can make accountable whenever they please.

Hey, did you hear about the CDC losing track of influenza and smallpox vials?  Funny what persistent underfunding and a round of sequestering will do to your disease control mechanisms.  I’m not surprised after what I heard during my trip to Cambridge, MA in May.  A recent visitor to the CDC said that the place is demoralized and disorganized with co-workers not even knowing who was in their groups.  I don’t blame this on government since the CDC didn’t used to be this FUBARed.  No, I blame it on the authoritarian nut cases in the Republican party whose intractable, unyielding, “take-no-prisoners”, never compromise, never surrender attitude and actions are putting the rest of us at risk.

We need to hold them accountable.

Oh, by the way, congresspersons who vote for more H1B visas in the immigration bill before the excess glut of American STEM workers are re-employed should be vigorously primaried.

 

Pondering Abramson’s firing- again (for the last time)

Update: Here’s a podcast from the Women’s Media Center on the subject of Jill Abramson’s firing featuring Carol Jenkins, Geneva Overholser, Gloria Steinem, and Soraya Chemaly.  They talk about some of the material I posted below.  As to how we tackle the problem of subtle but real discrimination, we need to take a lesson from Finland and open up a Gender Glasses office in the EEOC that will quantify absolutely everything in a suspect workplace.  Everything must be measured from the placement of desks to the time it takes for email to be answered to who reports to who to how many minutes women are allowed to present and how many times they are interrupted compared to a man.  Think of it like following sports.  Men respect statistics and, frankly, I think it is the only way this problem is going to get flushed out into the open.   Otherwise, it’s just our word against theirs.  If feminists are really serious about the issue, they need to lobby legislators to formally create a Gender Glasses type of bureau, fund it and publish the statistics.  You will know who your friends are when they are asked to co-sign the legislation and move it through the committees.

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

I promise this will be the last time I write about this thing because it’s speculation anyway.  But there’s a lot going on here and, in the end, this is primarily a story about how gender stereotypes were used to serve Baquet.  I realize that he’s a likable guy but in the end, Baquet was the primary beneficiary of Abramson’s firing.  I think we have to acknowledge that he had a significant role in it.

The story is complicated by a family dynasty, recent history, embarrassment, loyalty, economics and a fundamental misunderstanding about how modern women (and some modern men) think.  So, this post will be in pieces parts with the hope that it will all make sense in the end.  Some of these pieces come from personal experience that I have witnessed or was encouraged to participate in.  The pharma field has given me a wealth of material to write several satires.

Let’s start with the most obvious factor plucked from another post I read this morning about positions traditionally held by men being replaced by female appointees and the irrational resentment that engenders.

“There aren’t any WOMEN here today, are there?”

1.) The male affirmative action program.  I ran into this one early in my career when the lab I worked for hired a woman to run a medicinal chemistry group.  As far as I could see, she was the only woman running a group of that size in the company.  There were other female chemists who had a few assistants and were running project teams but this one new hire, let’s call her D, was going to have a substantial group of PhD chemists running their own projects working for her.  It was unprecedented.  On the projects I worked on with D, I found her to be very intelligent, incisive, authoritative and, this one is important, calm.  There was no drama.  She was, and still is, a natural leader.

Needless to say, to this day, the chemists at that lab (who were all laid off en masse by Pfizer in 2009, but that’s another story) complained bitterly about why D was hired.  It wasn’t just that she was a token, it was that there were so many other more qualified men that could have been hired in her stead.  I had lunch with a bunch of these guys a couple of years ago.  They are all pretty decent people, even if they are mentally disabled by their Y chromosomes.  When the subject of D was brought up, I laughed at them. They were still convinced that there were better qualified men that could have been hired.  I pointed out that before D started, all of the group leaders were men and several, and I named names, were leaders that no one could stand.  They were irrational or untalented or autocratic or weird.  No one wanted to work for them.  But D comes along and instead of saying, hey, she makes JB look like a fricking nut case, why don’t we replace HIM, we’re getting all upset that she’s not some dude we know.  I gave them case after case of lousy male group leaders and they all agreed that no one wanted to work for them.  Working for D, on the other hand, was a pleasure because it was so damned rational.  So, what was the problem, guys?  Why is the answer always the affirmative action plan for men?  That shut them up and gave them something to think about for awhile.

Sometimes, you need to point out what a warped perspective men have about how the world works.  In some respects, their lives are as disadvantaged as a person who grew up in the ghetto.  It’s all they know.  They’re so used to lousy leadership from half of the men they work for that they fail to see what the real problem is when a woman steps in to a leadership position.

This has been brought up before but the news media represents women’s points of view very poorly.  The ratio of men to women on the Op/Ed pages of the NYTimes is something like 10-2.  Just look at the Supreme Court to see how having even 3 out of 9 people judging while female has had damn little impact on the law of the land.  It only takes one Justice Kennedy or Anonin Scalia in love with his own self and sense of power to hold back modernity in this country.  But for some reason, all I ever read about is consternation over why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is still serving, a question that never came up when John Paul Stevens was serving well into his 90th year.  So, it’s no wonder that our perceptions of women in leadership roles are so twisted.  It’s like the privileged group just now noticed that there are women in the crowd.

2.) The layoffs are coming!  The layoffs are coming!  Anyone working in the last 30 years knows what it’s like to be on the verge of a layoff.  The MBA crowd starts sending out fatwas about money and getting lunch served during 4 hour meetings is suddenly not happening anymore and cuts start really biting into how things are done.  When this starts happening to a group of professionals who are heavily mortgaged and have kids to raise and college to pay for, alliances start to get formed very quickly.  It becomes necessary to find the politically well connected and become their best friend.  You like what they like and hate who they hate.

When the layoff rumors started at my last lab about 2 years before the ax fell, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues who told me a story about his family dynamics.  He said that he had two brothers and in order to get what he wanted, he always sided with the stronger brother at the time.  The brother on top would periodically change and he switched his loyalties accordingly.  This conversation was in reference to why he was siding with the guy who eventually turned out to be our boss just before the layoff decisions were made and not with the woman who was my boss.  He was offering me a choice.  Switch and help drive the knife in or suffer the consequences.  I opted for  loyalty.  I liked my boss and was learning a lot from her.  She was displaced a few months later and got a new job, and almost all of her former group members were laid off pretty quickly.  I jumped to another group and hung on.

I bring this up because I’ve heard a lot of stuff about how even some of the women in the newsroom complained about Abramson.  This is at a time when the CEO of the Times had been making his presence more widely known.  When it comes time to satisfy the shareholders, it’s important that you have made the correct alliance.  It is pretty clear from the posts I have read about Baquet that Sulzberger liked him and had regretted not appointing him instead of Abramson.  So, if the Times staff was in the unenviable position of picking a brother to side with in order to save jobs, Baquet was the one to go to.  In such a situation, it is appropriate and understandable to play up his good characteristics in order to justify why Abramson was stabbed in the back.  It happens all of the time.  I didn’t say it was nice, or fair, or loyal.  It’s just human.  It’s not a reflection on either Baquet’s or Abramson’s leadership qualities.  Pinch liked Baquet and didn’t like Abramson and that’s all you needed to know in order to save your own skin.

3.) Ovaries of Steel.  In this case, I am not referring to Abramson, although that plays into it as well.  No, I’m referring to the person who Abramson was trying to bring in, Janine Gibson, newly appointed editor-in-chief of The Guardian.  Frontline recently ran a two part series on the NSA scandal that everyone should watch for a wide variety of reasons.  What Janine Gibson did was both shrewd and incredibly ballsy and she learned what NOT to do by watching what the Times did with previous national intelligence stories.

So, here’s a quick summary.  In 2004, James Risen of the NYTimes wrote a story about the Bush administration’s possible violations of the constitution through a massive surveillance of American citizens.  It turns out that Risen only knew a tiny fraction of what was going on and Edward Snowden would spell it all out 9 years later.  Risen presented Bill Keller, executive editor at the time with his story and Keller and Sulzberger contacted the White House.  The White House, deep in reelection politics, knew it had a problem on its hands so it invited Keller and Sulzberger to a meeting. It then put pressure on the Times to sit on the story for a year.  The Frontline documentary makes it sound like the White House either threatened the Times or laid a guilt trip on it about “letting the terrorists win”.  Well, you remember the crap that the Bushies were always dumping on its critics.  Same thing.

Fast forward to 2013.  Janine Gibson sends her representatives to Hong Kong to vet Edward Snowden.  They check him out and say he’s legit and the story is huge.  At that point, she also calls the White House- and gives them four hours to respond before she goes to print. She refuses a meeting. Gibson knew that if she met with the White House and they stalled for time or found a way to silence her source, the story would vanish into the ether so she gave them very little time to engage in defensive tactics.  Now, I think Edward Snowden is a hero and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras were inspiring but when it comes right down to it, none of revelations might have happened if Janine Gibson hadn’t had the courage and intelligence to pre-empt the White House and NSA’s stalling tactics.

4.) Putting it all together.  So, here’s my best guess as to how Abramson’s firing went down.  First, we have Baquet indulging in male affirmative action behavior.  Why shouldn’t he be executive editor?  Also, Abramson’s bringing in this Gibson girl to be his equal?  What?

(I’m going to guess this is when Abramson discovered that she had been underpaid at certain points during her career at the NYTimes.  She probably had to find out what salary, benefits and level she could offer Gibson and in the process, uncovered a pattern of pay discrimination that dated back to the time when she was a deputy managing editor.  Just a guess but the timing seems right.)

Then there is the sense of unease and impending cutbacks.  Baquet makes a lot of friends.  Sulzberger likes him.  Alliances are formed around Baquet.

Then there is the possible embarrassment to the Times if Gibson comes in.  First, it highlights Keller’s and Sulzberger’s toadying to the White House and, secondly, Janine Gibson looks like a loose cannon, something Baquet was likely to highlight during the amuse-bouche.  Abramson is making a rash decision to bring in someone who may get the NYTimes into another Risen situation with all of the potential legal headaches and expenses that would entail.  Did Pinch really want another embarrassing situation on his hands??  Come to think of it, it’s kind of flattering to be on the president’s good side, isn’t it?  And besides, Pinch was one of the forces behind trying to get Caroline Kennedy to take Hillary Clinton’s senate seat.  No doubt, Sulzberger considers himself to be one of the best people.  It just wouldn’t look good to hire this upstart boat rocker.  Did Abramson really think this over before she went over both of their heads to hire Gibson?

5.) The Pilhofer Pilfer.  Women who came of age during the 70’s and 80’s, before The Backlash, grew up believing that there were no boundaries to their ambition.  Oh, sure, we had professors who spent inordinate amounts of time fluffing some pissy little male students instead of us but we could rise above that.  Then we went to work and accomplished and moved into leadership positions and took some risks.  To us, I mean to the females in this cohort, there is a lot of admiration and respect for each other’s talents and life work.  We see ourselves as persons who are women with accomplishments.  However, to the rest of the world, especially to men who for some reason aren’t interested in hearing about the Abramson firing because it is booooorrrrrring to them, a person with Hillary Clinton’s or Jill Abramson’s credentials is still like a dog playing a piano.  They are one offs.

I have also read that women get their first crack at high level leadership when an organization is in trouble.  There are a couple theories as to why this is.  One is that the organizations have run out of other options.  Another is that women are seen as smoothing the waters when there is internal turmoil, although this is really a cultural stereotype.  Women are human beings and can be tough as well if they are given permission to do so.  Look at what happened in Iceland during the financial crisis of 2008.  Johanna Sigurdardottir was put in charge when the country faced down the IMF and the world’s biggest banks.  It initially had a severe recession but has recovered better than Ireland, Spain or Greece.  The risk to women is high in these situations.  If she can’t avert the impending disaster, her leadership is blamed and taints the careers of other women of her stature.

Abramson was put in a tricky position when she took over from Keller in 2011.  The Times is going through a harsh transition due to the changing nature of the media.  From all accounts, she was doing very well.  She was instrumental in putting up the paywall to the news, which makes a hell of a lot more sense than putting a paywall around the Op/Ed pages.  Maybe it wouldn’t have been enough to save her when the shareholders started demanding more for dinner.  Even superhuman accomplishments wouldn’t have been sufficient in that scenario.  And her reputedly “brusque” behavior was not unusual for executive editors of major papers.  I think the gender related complaints were just convenient excuses that Baquet and his allies used to get her out of the way.

But Sulzberger and Baquet are still working with old male brains because Janine Gibson *is* a force to be reckoned with and the fact that she poached one of the NYTimes’ up and coming digital content specialists in the aftermath of Abramson’s firing tells us quite a bit.  It tells us that there are some men who see an advantage to working for strong, courageous women, and that’s a very good thing for the rest of us.

And a very bad thing for the NYTimes.

 

 

Plan B

A couple of years ago, my supervisor Larry gave me a couple of pieces of advice. The first was that layoffs were coming and I should keep my head down, my mouth shut and do my work. I loved working for Larry just as I loved working for Isabelle, my previous supervisor. My job was my bliss. I was able to work in the lab again and learn new things with Larry and apply what I learned previously with Isabelle. Guys, there is nothing better in this world than doing something you enjoy for your living. It was better than making obscene gobs of filthy lucre. Well, I could go on but you get my drift.

I didn’t always follow his first piece of advice. I’m way too opinionated and when I’m worried, I’m easily distracted but when the layoff came, I was genuinely surprised that it hit our group because we were so freaking productive. So, I fell back on Larry’s second piece of advice: Have a Plan B.

One of the things job counselors will tell you besides the fact that you must sell yourself like Wilbur the Pig without the benefit of Charlotte’s Web is that you should not take just any job. I realize that’s easy for me to say because I saved a wad of cash before my layoff and got a nice severance package. Nevertheless, I’m glad I took my time deciding what my next move would be. I realized pretty early on that I did not want to go back into corporate research. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. It’s pretty clear that I loved it and think its probably the way to go if you want to do world class research in the private sector. Corporate labs benefit from an economy of scale and shared resources. But the truth is that the pharmaceutical industry is broken. I mean Seriously, fatally broken right now and while the grasshoppers are busily eating their seed corn, it’s harder to get research done. Then there is the whole lack of a PhD thing that shouldn’t make a difference when you need an experienced modeler/structural biologist (trust me, experience is essential), but somehow has become maniacally important in this job market.

I was very lucky to get some part time work with some former colleagues of mine who decided to bring industrial research to academia. I love this job too but it’s not going to pay the bills in New Jersey when the stash runs out, which will be in the not too distant future.

And then there is the kid who had a few years of high school left when I was laid off. I figured it was probably best to keep her in her present situation and not move her right away. I think this was the best decision for her because she needed the continuity even if she absolutely hates New Jersey with a white hot passion. Next year, the kid will be a senior and through with most of her AP classes. She can take classes at a local university. She’s ready so that’s a load off my mind.

So the time has come to implement Plan B. And what, you may ask, is Plan B? Plan B is to move back to Pittsburgh and live less expensively and without debt.

To that end, I’ve bought a house. :-)

When I close on it next month, I will own it free and clear. It’s in a semi-urban hellhole and about a block and a half from the bus line that will take me into the city in about half an hour. I’ll be looking for a job there soon and fortunately, because I won’t have a mortgage and won’t need a car everyday, I’m not going to stress over how much money I need to make. The house has a big yard so there will be raised bed gardening happening although I intend to spray the veggies if I have to. Screw that organic stuff. I want yield. Ok, maybe I’ll go easy on the pesticides. I can’t wait to try to grow fruit trees on an espalier.

For a short period of time, I’ll be living in two states. The house I’m buying was a foreclosed property but the bank closed on it months ago. It needs a bit of work but it’s got a nice layout and it’s on a lovely street. So, while I’m having the roof fixed and retaining walls repaired, I’ll be seeing the kid through the last months of school here in NJ.

Then, I’m blowing this pop-stand. It’s been real. Never again will I walk into a house and have an epiphany that the bank owns me and everything I have.

I can hardly wait.

Friday: The Stupid Continues

More fallout from the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to kowtow to it’s noisy but small group of elderly ultra religious social conservatives (whose numbers are shrinking at an alarming rate) and drop funding to Planned Parenthood.  This bit from John Raffaelli, a board member, sums up just how smug the social conservatives have gotten:

Her comments directly contradicted those of John D. Raffaelli, a Komen board member and Washington lobbyist, who told The New York Times on Wednesday that Komen made the changes to its grant-making process specifically to end its relationship with Planned Parenthood. Mr. Raffaelli said that Komen had become increasingly worried that an investigation of Planned Parenthood by Representative Cliff Stearns, Republican of Florida, would damage Komen’s credibility with donors.

Komen gave Planned Parenthood $700,000 last year — a tiny portion of its $93 million in grants — to finance 19 separate programs. A growing number of religious organizations had become concerned that donations to Komen would benefit Planned Parenthood and had advised members not to give to Komen. Rather than risk offending some donors with a relatively small portfolio of grants, Komen decided to largely cut off Planned Parenthood, Mr. Raffaelli said.

To Planned Parenthood, that decision amounted to a betrayal of the organizations’ shared goal of saving lives through breast screening programs. Ms. Richards, Planned Parenthood’s president, said her organization was gratified by the support the controversy has brought.

“We provide care to one in five women in America, and over the last two days it seems we’ve heard from every one of them, through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and all sorts of ways, “ Ms. Richards said. “It’s a true show of women standing for women.”

Over 30 years, Komen became one of the most successful disease advocacy organizations in the world by making pink ribbons and the fight against breast cancer as prevalent a symbol here as baseball and apple pie.

Avoiding this kind of controversy was the very reason Komen chose a quiet ending to its relationship with Planned Parenthood, Mr. Raffaelli said. And he said Komen was bitterly disappointed that Planned Parenthood was using Komen’s decision to raise money.

Notice what is really outraging the board at Komen.  It’s not that they haven’t cured breast cancer or spared one woman the pain of losing her breasts or life.  No, the outrage is that Planned Parenthood is benefitting from the Komen’s ill-advised, boneheaded decision.  How dare Planned Parenthood not take defeat humbly?!  Don’t they realize that the most powerful breast cancer organization in the world has just given them orders to drop their abortion services or suffer the consequences?  Doesn’t Planned Parenthood recognize shame when it is shoved in its face?  Who do these (slightly soiled and socially unacceptable) people think they are by assuming they can raise money for their filthy deeds?

I think we can deduce the kind of people Komen mingles with.  They’re not the kind of people who would ever need to visit Planned Parenthood.  They’re the kind of people who see the breast cancer screening activities of Planned Parenthood as a small auxilliary activity of their pro abortion empire.  They’ve never been a poor college student or working class woman or even middle class woman with a gap in her health insurance coverage.  It is inconceivable why anyone would want to contribute money to THAT GROUP.  In their minds, and the minds of their friends, Planned Parenthood has a reputation that is roughly equivalent of a crack den or a massage parlor.  I think Komen is just now waking up to the fact that millions and millions of American women do not see it that way at all.  This is what happens when growing income inequality separates the moneyed from everyone else.  They just have no idea how the other 99% live.

Sadly, I know exactly the kind of people Komen is trying to appeal to.  I’ve had dinner with these people.  Some of them are pretty well off and are otherwise kind and generous.  They just have this weakness where social issues are concerned and a blind spot about who actually uses services like Planned Parenthood.  Their obsession with homosexuality and abortion tears churches apart and their wealth gives them the power to withhold their money from any organization that does even one teensy tiny thing they don’t approve of.

Komen should have held firm and told these people to back off.  If preventing breast cancer is the goal, all of the money in the world won’t work unless it is put in the hands of the people who can actually detect and prevent breast cancer.  There’s no point sitting on a pile of cash if you don’t intend to use it.

Which brings me to my next item…

Astra-Zeneca announced the layoffs of 7700 people yesterday.  AZ is closing their site in Montreal, Canada.  Pharmageddon is hitting Montreal pretty hard, which makes me more than a little concerned for one of my favorite Canadian computational chemistry vendors.  I wonder how long they can survive in this environment and am hoping they are working on a new business model.

Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline covered the Astra-Zeneca layoffs yesterday and discovered this little nugget:

And AZ seems to be all but getting out of pain/CNS, cutting down to a few dozen people who will do external collaborations. Oh, and they’re buying back 4.5 billion dollars worth of stock, instead of spending that money on what the company tries to make a profit on. So there is that. If you’d like to hear AZ tell you how all this is making them more productive, here’s the press release.

Yes, you read that right, AZ is destroying the careers of almost 8000 scientists and support staff so that they can buy back stock.  Just concentrate that wealth even further.  Don’t dilute it.  And you know, I’m all for it.  I hope my 401K isn’t invested in AZ stock because the company isn’t going to grow any time soon.

Derek has a new post up today about AZ in Waltham, MA.  It looks like the shadow man is hanging over that site as well and AZ is playing the same game that Pfizer and other pharmas have done to their staffs:

Pfizer has done this to their people before, as have other companies in the throes of layoffs, and it’s the only way I know to actually push morale and productivity down even further in such a situation. You come to work for weeks, for months, not knowing if your, your lab, or your whole department is heading for the chopping block. All you’re sure of is that someone is. And will your own stellar performance persuade upper management to keep you, when the time comes? Not likely, under these conditions – it’ll more likely be the sort of thing where they draw lines through whole areas. Your fate, most people feel at these times, is not in your own hands. A less motivating environment couldn’t be engineered on purpose.

But that’s what AZ’s management has chosen to do at their largest research site in North America. I hope that they enjoy the results. But then (and more on this later), these are the people who have chosen to spend billions buying back their own stock rather than put it into research in the first place. It’s not like the score isn’t already up there on the big screen for everyone to see.

Been there.  Done that.  The shadow man hung over our site for about 2 years.  I don’t know what made us think the company would spare us.  In the final months before we were laid off, the lights were dimmed, the labs rearranged, whole departments were abandoned, their gleaming robotics collecting dust.  The hallways were darkened and we navigated our carts down allies cluttered with discarded lab equipment.  Chemists roamed the corridors with pale skin and dark circles under their eyes from lack of sleep, like zombies, with slowed gaits and unfixed gazes, turning inwards towards some bleak vision of the future.  No, I am not exaggerating.  My lab partner and I were so busy we hardly noticed the change around us until we met one of the living dead chemists in the hallway.  We were so caught up in our own research and making such good progress that we had no idea that we would be the first to go.  And no, it didn’t matter that our work was stellar or had gotten praise or that we had gotten Christmas bonuses for outstanding performance.  When the cut came, we were stunned.  But an email from the corporate guys up the street let us know that because our jobs were sacrificed, the company had met and exceeded its quarterly projections.  That was supposed to make us feel better.

There should be a law about sending out tasteless and painful email like that to employees you still want to work for you for four more months.  But it’s almost like the MBAs didn’t know we existed or that we had feelings and children we had to break the news to.  I understand that the AZ folks have been fully informed of the stock buy back program and must be feeling really peachy about it now.  Waltham folks should get their affairs in order.  When you start to work under the shadow man, your site’s days are numbered.

And here’s a little dark comedy production put together by a pharma chemist with YouTube handle ZombieSymmetry.  This is what passes for pharmaceutical research in this country these days.  It is trickle down Wharton MBA:

This is EXACTLY the kind of crap we had to put up with. And this:

I realize there are some smug and resentful liberal types out there reading this who have zero sympathy for pharma workers. Personally, I think you’re lacking a compassion component to your personality or are letting your political dogma interfere with your understanding of a crucial component of your country’s research infrastructure. I won’t call you stupid because that wouldn’t be nice because that wouldn’t be true. But your attitude is incredibly naive.

Pharmageddon should matter to you and you should see it as an opportunity to rejigger pharmaceutical research to work for YOU and not the small evil group that runs everything and to which no one we know belongs. Right now, the research community needs you to grow a clue and help them so they can help you. Without them, you are going to face rising costs in generic drugs and will become reliant on China for any new drugs that get discovered. Is that what you want??

Didn’t think so. Now, grab onto the research that is slipping away and pull hard.

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

In case the politicians start singing about green shoots being just around the corner in yet another recovery summer, here is more evidence that it’s not happening in the pharma/biotech sector where the workers with the best educations are.  This layoff list is from FiercePharma and is just from *this year*.  We’re only three days into February and this is what we’re looking at:

If I were a politician in NJ, NY, PA, CT, MA or CA, I’d be shitting bricks right now.  The loss of highly paid, technical and biotech jobs has been enormous and we know that politicians have been sticking their fingers in their ears singing “la-la-la”.  Democrats haven’t done a damn thing to stop the job losses.  They have allowed the grasshoppers to hollow out these companies and take everything for themselves.  We’re left fending for ourselves in an environment when money for research is scarce and vulture capitalists are waiting to swoop down and take advantage of any new discoveries we can find from working our asses off.

Everyone will pay for this with higher drug costs, and fewer new and safer discoveries.  What has been allowed to happen is criminal.  Don’t expect us to reward incumbents with our votes.

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.

Touché

I just read this story over at Derek Lowe’s blog, In the Pipeline. It’s too good to excerpt:

I believe that this story has been mentioned in the comments here, but since I’ve heard from the actual person involved, I thought I’d pass on the canonical version. Someone I used to work with at Schering-Plough found himself (like many others in his position) out of a job in late October. He had a previously scheduled trip to Florida the next day, and as he boarded the plane, who should he see sitting in first class but Fred Hassan, the CEO of Schering-Plough who’d helped engineer the deal with Merck?

As the chemist involved put it, “After quickly scanning to make sure there wasn’t a body guard looking guy near him”, he said “Hi, Fred!” Hassan looked up and asked “Do I know you?” “Well,” said the chemist, “no, probably not, but I’m a medicinal chemist with Schering-Plough, and now Merck”. Hassan smiled and said “Great, so how are you?” The response, in a loud voice, was “Well, I just got laid off!”. He then walked on down to his seat in coach, and heard Hassan saying something about being sorry about that. And as he told me, he sat there in coach, smiling at the picture of Hassan thinking about this irate ex-employee on the plane with him for the next 2 and a half hours. . .

I can think of some other CEOs who we’d like to meet in planes.  Like Bernard Poissot, Jeffrey Kindler and all of the guys from Morgan-Stanley and Goldman Sachs who helped arrange the innovation sucking, livelihood killing mergers that resulted in the unnecessary and stupid loss of our jobs.

Now that we know that they occasionally fly commercial, we may get our chance someday  Fred Hassan has left such a trail of destruction through the industry, it’s a wonder he didn’t find a contingent of Occupy Pharma on that flight.

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

Conflucian Sharon recommended this video last night.  It’s supposed to be the research version of Glengarry Glen Ross but it’s eerily accurate.

I’ve even had my share of rageaholic bosses who used to travel from Cambridge, MA to Princeton just for the purpose of screaming in our faces. He subjected my female colleague to a purple faced tirade for close to 30 minutes and it was so loud the whole floor could hear it.  Not only that but there have been instances where the guy who invented a multi-billion dollar blockbuster drug for a company was laid off with the rest of the site.  Well, after all, that was 10 years ago.  The dude probably sold that invention to the company for the customary $1.  And after billions of dollars, he gets a pink slip.  And yes, we drive Ford Fiestas, or PT Cruisers, in my case.  I once had to drive my French director to a dinner in my Cruiser and he told me in no uncertain terms how little he thought of it.  I like it.  As a single person, I need a car that has the versatility of a Swiss army knife.  Besides, if he wanted to travel in style to dinner in a BMW or a Lexus, he was hanging with the wrong crowd.  The executives up the road can afford the nice cars.

Every day in the labs that are left in America, a less noisy version of that video plays itself out.  Your job is constantly on the line.  There is no time for thinking problems through thoroughly, no money for the iterations of experiments that are necessary to crack the problem.  Your colleagues become your competition for a vicious game of full time position musical chairs.  Every year, there’s a new hairbrained scheme from the MBA class that never sets foot in a lab.  One of the most idiotic is to have each department bid for another department’s work.  Yes, let’s treat each of our former seamlessly integrated pieces of the research puzzle as potential contract resources complete with competitive bidding with the outside world and all of the time wasting paperwork that goes with that. And no one is allowed to feel “good enough”.  If you don’t have a PhD, you’re dirt.  If you don’t have a PhD from a prestigious university, you’re barely tolerable.  If you haven’t published 2 papers per year in Nature as first author, your job is in jeopardy.  Steak knives?  Unheard of.  You’re lucky if you still get free coffee.   And your pension is not safe no matter how many years you put in.

So, it only looks like comedy until you have to live it.  Oh, I could tell stories that would make your hair curl.  This is the way we treat our best and brightest.

More layoffs in Pharma

Yeah, yeah, I know, lefties would care about us except we’re *pharma*.  Your (lack of) concern is truly touching.

This latest layoff is from Sanofi-Aventis in Bridgewater, NJ.  Hundreds of scientists will be losing their jobs.  20-30% may be transferred to the Cambridge facility.  Looks like NJ just lost a bunch more taxpayers.  There’s not a lot of upside to the layoff of more of my friends and colleagues.  There are a lot more of us biomedical researchers on the market now.  With the recent announcements of layoffs from Merck, Novartis and Amgen, it’s almost as if the spigot was opened full force again.  What is happening to pharma right now would have someone like Steve Jobs spitting nails.  The entire focus has been on extracting every last dollar out of the company and abandoning the product line.  It’s hard to predict what comes next but pharma can’t be bled dry forever and the Chinese are not ready to take over yet.

Geeks are people too and we have caloric and shelter requirements like everyone else.  I would say I am surprised that the Obama administration is not paying greater attention to this problem but by the time the effects of so many unemployed researchers finally hits the American consciousness, he will be out of office.  What might have happened if he had taken Christina Romer up on that suggestion of $100 billion for a jobs program?  We might all be working our butts off in some mothballed lab somewhere, carrying on with the research we were doing, living on decent but unspectacular salaries and paying our taxes.

But since we are not all male construction workers, Obama isn’t worrying his pretty little head about us.

No one is entitled to a second term.

 

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