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.

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.

 

Business ruined science in this country

These two posts go together:

Engineers See a Path out of Green Card Limbo at the NYTimes

and

Promoting STEM Education, Foolishly at In the Pipeline by Derek Lowe

Here’s the bottom line as Derek spells it out:

And that takes us back to the subject of these two posts, on the oft-heard complaints of employers that they just can’t seem to find qualified people any more. To which add, all too often, “. . .not at the salaries we’d prefer to pay them, anyway”. Colin Macilwain, the author of this Nature piece I’m quoting from, seems to agree:

“But the main backing for government intervention in STEM education has come from the business lobby. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a businessman stand up and bemoan the alleged failure of the education system to produce the science and technology ‘skills’ that his company requires, I’d be a very rich man.

 I have always struggled to recognize the picture these detractors paint. I find most recent science graduates to be positively bursting with both technical knowledge and enthusiasm.

If business people want to harness that enthusiasm, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and pay and train newly graduated scientists and engineers properly. It is much easier, of course, for the US National Association of Manufacturers and the British Confederation of British Industry to keep bleating that the state-run school- and university-education systems are ‘failing’.”

This position, which was not my original one on this issue, is not universally loved. (The standard take on this issue, by contrast, has the advantage of both flattering and advancing the interests of employers and educators alike, and it’s thus very politically attractive). I don’t even have much affection for my own position on this, even though I’ve come to think it’s accurate. As I’ve said before, it does feel odd for me, as a scientist, as someone who values education greatly, and as someone who’s broadly pro-immigration, to be making these points. But there they are.

Anyone who thinks that all you need to make  good science is cheap, well educated labor should really give it a whirl sometime.  Let me know how you’re doing after a decade of lab work and half a dozen restructurings.

The idea that we need to import more foreign engineers when American engineers can’t get work here and have to go work in Canada and Japan is just beyond cruel and stupid.

As Colin McIlwain says, the idea that there is a shortage of well educated, technically proficient and experienced American scientists is something the business community conjured up in order to push wages down.  Congress is either willfully ignorant or completely bamboozled if it seriously thinks that we need more foreign STEM graduates.  I recommend that the coastal Senators and Reps take a good look at their states’ unemployment statistics to see what Pharmageddon has done to the R&D industry.  It’s a hemorrhage of good jobs and tax revenue and if they pass this immigration measure, they’re only going to make the problem worse.

Good science is hard work and should be paid accordingly.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known scientists who have been here for years and had difficulty getting a Green Card and I have great sympathy for them.  They paid their dues and deserved the card.  But we don’t need more foreign math and science students here until we can clear the backlog of the hundreds of thousands un and underemployed scientists that are struggling to get by since the bonus class decided it didn’t really need research after all.  In any case, they’re smart enough to figure it out.  When low wages make living in the US a losing proposition after 10 years of undergraduate and graduate school, they’ll stop coming here.

They might try France instead.  Here’s an article from the WSJ about how R&D employees got the aid of the French government on its side to keep the research facilities open when the Bonus Class at Sanofi tried to shut them down.  The secret?  UNIONS.

Want to know where the next great discoveries are going to come from?  Europe.

If American STEM workers don’t start fighting back, we all lose:

Still busy doing stuff work and house related.  It’s perfect gardening weather here in Pittsburgh.  I’m having a couple of cubic yards of mulch and top soil mix dropped off here later and I have a ton of weeding to do.  Now, where are my secateurs?

SOTU {{facepalm}}

There are two problems with the SOTU speech.  I don’t believe Obama and the Republicans have a gift for manipulation.  We need to learn how to monkeywrench that.

First, let’s start with Obama.  I don’t care what he said last night or what his delivery was like or even if some of his ideas were kinda, sorta in the vague general direction we need to go.  Even if he didn’t have a history of making you think he has your best interests at heart just before he delivers some incredibly weak policy, all his goodwill would have been negated when I heard this:

Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.

Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.

[yeah, yeah, all well and good but what's this...?]

And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.

There are two problems with the idea that American needs more highly skilled entrepreneurs and engineers from foreign countries.  The first is that it’s bullshit and the second is that Obama is getting his information from the same Wall Street braintrusts who ran our research complex into the ground.

Let’s take on the bullshit aspect first, shall we?  Since 2008, the biotech/pharma research sector has laid off over 100,000 scientists, the bulk of them in NJ.  Don’t believe me?  Check out FiercePharma Top 10 Layoffs for 2009 for a taste of the carnage.  As for foreign engineers needing to come here, I can only assume he means the kind of engineers they employ in the Apple plants in China.  Because I know American chemical engineers who are working in Canada and Japan because they can’t get a job in the United States.  So, the only reason I can think as to why we are bringing in foreign engineers is that the companies that want to hire them have been keeping perfectly good, highly skilled American engineers out of the labor market and now, realizing they actually need engineers, they want to bring in cheap labor from elsewhere.

It is the mark of a very disinterested, captured president if he is unwilling to address the real problem of unemployed American STEM workers, who apparently have no voice, in order to shut up the yammering from the executive suites of big companies.  He’d rather send our own American high tech workers out of the country and away from their families than ask companies to demonstrate why they need to be sitting on the pile of cash that should be wages.  This is shameful.

Secondly, about that entrepreneurship?  What exactly does he think R&D professionals are made of?  When we were working for corporations, we were not exactly making the big bucks.  Some of us came from the midwest and were dragged out to the most expensive areas of the country when our corporate overlords decided to merge their little hearts away.  THEN when those same corporate overlords realized that the cost of research was suddenly too high, because they vastly increased the cost of each scientist by moving them out to the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia, they unceremoniously laid our asses off and stranded us here.  The severance packages are temporary, mortgages are forever.

So, where exactly are we supposed to get money to be entrepreneurs?  I mean, who in their right mind would lend money to little biotech startups with a lead compound and expect that compound to go all the way through clinical to market?  Well, as we have seen from recent evidence, it is very, very difficult to start those kinds of businesses here because once the compound is at the development stage, you need to lay off early discovery personnel in order to have enough capital to see the drug through the next stage.  What foreign grad student would voluntarily come to America to put themselves through that  short employment cycle?  Why not go to Germany to study?  I would.  I wouldn’t waste my time struggling here in the US where you are expected to live on a pittance, public transportation is awful, healthcare is ridiculously expensive and you can’t buy a decent house on the $37K a year that you’ll be expected to make as a permanent post doc.

If Obama can’t get this one policy right with regard to the causes and effects of high unemployment among American STEM workers, I can’t believe he has a good grip on ANY economic issue.  It’s either willful ignorance on his part or he just doesn’t give a damn.

Look, guys, and by guys I mean the White House and Congress, high tech workers have to eat too.  You may think we’re all a bunch of unwashed geeks who eat Cheetos out of the vending machines and are awkward around the opposite sex but if you actually do any kind of investigation into the lives we live, you will see that we’re not that different from other “normal” Americans.  We like nice places to live that aren’t collapsing on us, decent transportation, a nice bottle of wine with dinner, trips to DisneyWorld with the kids we procreated and all the other stuff that makes life in the US worth living.  Whoever is telling you that STEM people are willing to work for post doc salaries until they get the brilliant idea that’s going to turn them into the next Thomas Edison is really not dealing well with reality.

Speaking of not dealing with reality well, Paul Krugman has a post on his blog about Marco Rubio’s response and how Rubio casually threw in this bit of, well, there’s no other way to say this, lying:

This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it’s just not true. In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.

Krugman says:

OK, leave on one side the caricature of Obama, with the usual mirror-image fallacy (we want smaller government, therefore liberals just want bigger government, never mind what it does); there we go with the “Barney Frank did it” story. Deregulation, the explosive growth of virtually unregulated shadow banking, lax lending standards by loan originators who sold their loans off as soon as they were made, had nothing to do with it — it was all the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie, and Freddie.

Look, this is one of the most thoroughly researched topics out there, and every piece of the government-did-it thesis has been refuted; see Mike Konczal for a summary. No, the CRA wasn’t responsible for the epidemic of bad lending; no, Fannie and Freddie didn’t cause the housing bubble; no, the “high-risk” loans of the GSEs weren’t remotely as risky as subprime.

This really isn’t about the GSEs, it’s about the BSEs — the Blame Someone Else crowd. Faced with overwhelming, catastrophic evidence that their faith in unregulated financial markets was wrong, they have responded by rewriting history to defend their prejudices.

This strikes me as a bigger deal than whether Rubio slurped his water; he and his party are now committed to the belief that their pre-crisis doctrine was perfect, that there are no lessons from the worst financial crisis in three generations except that we should have even less regulation. And given another shot at power, they’ll test that thesis by giving the bankers a chance to do it all over again.

Since I am about to move into a neighborhood that was affected by the housing crisis (disclaimer: my new house is a foreclosed property in a neighborhood of them), I will be doing my own little bit of research on Rubio’s side of the story to determine what exactly went wrong but let me just say that I’m skeptical.  Not only am I skeptical about the cause of the disaster but I suspect that the true bad actors are still acting badly.  Check out this post by Dave Dayan at The New Republic to see how investment bankers are messing with the housing recovery.  I had a conversation with a realtor yesterday, a listing agent for foreclosed properties, who told me that the banks are a mess.  From his description, I get the image of banks out of control, restructuring constantly, trying to game the system on a minute by minute basis, unsure who gets what contract papers when and in what order and losing money for themselves and their investors in the process because the working environment is constantly shifting.  Of course, that is a much more complex and longer story to tell and besides, it doesn’t fit with the “these are not the droids you’re looking for” strategy  of deflecting blame from the big money donors of the Republican party so the general public is largely unaware of the bankers’ shenanigans and how they are setting communities, homeowners and renters up for even more destructive wealth extraction.

But what really floors me is how so many voters who lean conservative actually believe this crap.  Is it because the alternative explanations never get floated past them or that those alternatives are too complex?  Or is it because the conditioning is too ingrained?  Demographic trends will take care of much of negative effects to a critical mass of Americans but for the good of the country, we really need to figure out how to put a stop to allowing so much of our population to believe lies.  At the very least, there should be a truth in advertising statement for both the SOTU address and its responses.  But even that will be insufficient if there’s no way to effectively push back in such a way that an evidence based world is the operant one.

It’s a huge problem for both the left and the right.  If we don’t solve it, we might as well just let the plutocrats indenture us now.

Update: So, apparently the new meme is “Down with Austerity! Up with a balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases!”  A “balanced approach of spending cuts and tax increases” is still AUSTERITY.  I’m sorry, no matter how you slice it, when you cut spending in the midst of a depression, which is what we are in right now, the consequence is going to be AUSTERITY and a return to more recession.  Can we cut the crap already, Barry?  You need to spend money, the money you can get for ridiculously low interest rates, and put people back to work.  Anything else is AUSTERITY.

I blame the “progressives” who got us into this mess.  I will never, never forgive the assholes who got schmoozed by this Republican president in disguise.

WaPo: US Pushes for more scientists but the jobs aren’t there

Kudos to Brian Verstag for getting the truth out about the reality of the STEM professional.  There just aren’t any jobs out there.  Read the story here.  Here’s the money quote:

Obama has made science education a priority, launching a White House science fair to get young people interested in the field.

But it’s questionable whether those youths will be able to find work when they get a PhD. Although jobs in some high-tech areas, especially computer and petroleum engineering, seem to be booming, the market is much tighter for lab-bound scientists — those seeking new discoveries in biology, chemistry and medicine.

“There have been many predictions of [science] labor shortages and . . . robust job growth,” said Jim Austin, editor of the online magazine ScienceCareers. “And yet, it seems awfully hard for people to find a job. Anyone who goes into science expecting employers to clamor for their services will be deeply disappointed.”

Disclaimer: I talked to Brian for this article and though he got a few of my details not *quite* right, overall the article is spot on about what we are going through.

There are more than 3700 comments so, clearly, he has struck a nerve.  Thank you, Brian.

One other thing:  Just because we are losing a lot of jobs in the life sciences doesn’t mean that there is a shortage of work to be done.  That is perhaps the most painful reality when it comes to the crisis in the STEM professions.  The truth is that biology is undergoing a radical transformation at the present time.  We *should* be throwing as much brain power as possible at every problem just to stay on top of it.  There are more than enough problems to be solved to keep every scientist on the planet fully occupied for the rest of their natural lives.

The problem is that no one wants to pay for it.  And there are no shortcuts in science. It is a lengthy process where we sometimes end up with more questions than we started with.  That kind of endeavor isn’t very profitable anymore, or not to Wall Street’s standards anyway.  To solve some of biology’s biggest problems, we will need much more government intervention.  Fortunately, infusions of cash into the research area would amount to a tiny fraction of what we have already thrown at the banks.

 

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