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Ya’ Think?

Hi all, I’m busy today hand delivering some documents for Brooke for her trip to Germany and then I’m headed to Philly to Check on some jobs I left running.

In the meantime, it seems to have suddenly hit some of the financial analysts that, hey, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to fire all of the drug discovery scientists in America and expect them to sink or swim in one small underfunded company after another. We could have told them that a few years ago but no one has been listening to the labrats for at least a decade, so, you know, there’s that. Matthew Herper at Forbes gets a clue:

I write a lot about an industry (pharmaceuticals) where there have been huge and crashing drug cuts. From 2000 through the beginning of 2011, the drug industry cut almost 300,000 jobs. That is as many people as are employed at Merck, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline, and as many people as the entire drug business employs in the U.S. Part of the reason is that companies are facing dramatically rising research costs and declining peak sales of new drugs. Price increases can only go so far in counteracting these forces. That’s why there’s lots of talk about moving to smaller, more outsourced companies.

But the Uniqlo article got me thinking that perhaps part of the problem is a lack of appreciation for the human capital that goes into inventing drugs — or, to avoid management speak, all those scientists. Two big problems in the drug business are that most costs occur at the end of developing a new medicine, in the form of new clinical trials, but that the prospect of these huge costs also crimps on what comes from basic research.

An ideal drug company would follow all sorts of crazy ideas in early research, with the goal of selecting those where there was a high probability of believing they would actually prove effective in clinical development. It would bulk up on scientists, and try to limit the number of large clinical trials it conducted to those where some kind of test — blood levels of some protein, perhaps — led researchers to think they had a high probability of success. (Novartis, the most successful company in terms of getting new drugs to market, has moved in this direction.) But the tendency of the shutdowns has been to shut laboratories, too. Look at Merck’s stance toward the old Organon labs or Pfizer’s decision to shut the Michigan labs where Lipitor was invented. Taking the ax to the scientists is probably a mistake.

Let that sink in. In the past decade, we have essentially fired all of the research staff of the US. Oh sure, some of them are lucky enough to score jobs in Massachusetts but these are at small companies where the pay includes equity and where the company failure rate is 80%. Scientists have to uproot their families, sometimes several times, and layoffs are the rule now, not the exception. You can never plan on having a job for very long.

And remember, this is how we treat the best and brightest in American universities and colleges. It’s not much better in academia where the shrinking pool of grant money means that it’s frequently who you know, not what you know, that gets your grant funded. In the meantime, everyone is living on soft money in the most expensive areas of the country.

300,000 people is a lot of people and not all of them have been salespeople. When you go to a networking meeting and meet nothing but other unemployed people trying to find a job, the situation isn’t funny any more. It’s criminal.

I consider myself lucky because I’m not destitute yet. But I know other scientists who are leaving the profession. Not just their fields of study. They’re leaving science altogether. They’re turning their backs on the whole idea of research. And this trend reminds me of something Rachel Maddow wrote about in her book when she was relating our troubles in maintaining nuclear weapons built in the 60s and 70s. The military has lost generational knowledge. It can no longer maintain these systems because the scientists and engineers who used to do it have retired or died and no one replaced them. That’s what’s going to happen to medicine. And that is a shame for scientists and patients alike. Patients will be stuck using older generation medicines and generics. The pace of new dug discovery is going to slow to a snail’s pace and when we are gone, it will be up to a new generation of scientists, if you can get anyone to go into it, to figure out how the “ancient ones” did it.

I’m bitterly disappointed in the way the left has turned their backs on this problem. Based on recent emails I have gotten on the subject, it seems that the left is more concerned with finding fault in research without looking closely at why it is that so many scientists lack the resources and time to check their work. That’s because there’s no money for multiple experiments and no time before your lack of publications land you on the unemployment line. Even if you can publish and make the next big blockbuster, your employment is not assured. To the suits, it’s always, “what have you done for me lately?”

Instead of looking to the scientists to blame, and we tend to be very critical of ourselves or we would have gone into finance which requires a lot less self-reflection, both sides of the aisle should spend some time asking themselves what they might have done differently to keep the scientific infrastructure robust and vibrant. Because right now, there is a lot of blame to go around and we’re pretty disgusted by the reaction of all sides.

I’d like to say I helped cure cancer in my lifetime and for all I know, I may have already done that. But it’s only one of many cancers and the list of diseases is very, very long. For those of you who may be worried that the next antibiotic isn’t there or that your cancer won’t be curable, all I can suggest is that you try very hard to not get sick.

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