I rarely answer my critics. In fact, I don’t even read them. Why play Whack-a-Mole with people whose sole purpose in life appears to be poking you to see how you react?
But it has recently come to my attention that Madeleine Jacobs, executive director and CEO of the American Chemical Society wrote an Op/Ed particularly criticizing something I said to a reporter at the Washington Post.
The piece that reporter wrote didn’t exactly misquote me, although he wasn’t entirely accurate either, but let’s just say that Brian left a lot of things out and “shaped” his predetermined narrative. If you read that article and had never read anything I’ve posted about my career or layoff *here*, you would have gotten a distorted impression about my passion for science.
But the most annoying thing was that my comments about not encouraging my daughter to go into science has left a lot of context on the editorial cutting room floor. But anyway, here’s Madeleine’s snippy little commentary on what I said:
This misguided advice so stunned me that I began crafting a response, but Daniel Jordan, a biology major, beat me to the punch with a superb letter to the Washington Post. He wrote: “Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons. Energetic men and women must be encouraged to enter the sciences despite these obstacles. In fact, those individuals who are passionate enough about their work to stick with it during times of hardship and who hunger to expand their, and our, knowledge of the world are the very ones we most want. … This prognosis of doom and gloom should be seen as a catalyst to redouble our efforts to foster creativity, ingenuity and admiration for the sciences.”
Right on, Daniel! The U.S. must support and produce the most-talented, best-trained scientists in the world to drive U.S. innovation. In the 1960s, in the aftermath of Sputnik, being a scientist was a noble calling. Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty.
Madeleine, Madeleine, Madeleine, you have taken on the wrong person, my dear.
Let me address this one item at a time:
1.) My daughter is good at many subjects. I won’t go into it all right now because people are sick of hearing about it but suffice it to say that she is currently being recruited by some very nice universities and she just started her junior year in high school. But the reason she is being recruited is because her brain has a peculiar and rare wiring for languages. She is a human babel fish. When I talked to Brian, I told him that I thought she might be good at international law, something he neglected to mention. But she might very well be suited for research into the cognitive sciences or computational linguistics. Right now, she is taking two AP science courses and I’m sure she will do well in them. But with TWO parents who have experienced layoffs and have not been able to get jobs that pay what they used to make, and who have to pay for their health insurance and everything else, she knows without me even telling her that chemistry and biotech in general are very unstable career paths.
2.) I am hardly the only one who has told their kids to not go into chemistry, medicinal chemistry or biotech, Madeleine. I am simply the person who isn’t afraid to admit it. In fact, all of my former colleagues have told their kids the same thing. Don’t go into biomedical, biotech, or chemical research. Even the ones who still have jobs, and there aren’t many of my friends who haven’t been laid off, have told me that if they had to do it all over again, they wouldn’t have gone into research. They say this because they know that the people who run the industry don’t give a rat’s ass about how much passion they put into their jobs or how much experience they have or even if they have discovered a multi-billion dollar drug. The bottom line is the bottom line and when it is time to cut costs, your salary just looks like it is getting in the way of some shareholder’s dividend and some hot shot corporate office jockey riding over your life to a big bonus.
3.) The industry is becoming increasingly unforgiving towards those of us without PhDs. In this environment, Michael Faraday would be relegated to glass washing. It’s short sighted and I have found that even on sympathetic chem industry blogs, the PhDs are lording it over the rest of us and clinging to their privilege as if their years of sacrifice in graduate school were still meaningful or necessary (it’s not necessary, trust me). But it’s not enough to get a PhD these days. No, you have to be the creme de la creme. The Wall Street Culture of Smartness, status and privilege has invaded the biotech world. You must be a graduate of the best universities in the world, have a royal pedigree and have made some stupendous, miraculous discovery that will be the next big “get rich quick!” thing that the financial backers will invest in. If you’re lucky, you will be paid a lot of money, but probably not as much as the Wall Street analyst who is checking your outfit out, and will be relocated (if necessary) to Cambridge or San Francisco or some equally outrageously expensive place to live. If your now shuttered US lab facility bestows upon you the blessings of employment in Cambridge, you will have to sell your underwater house and take your kids out of school and relocate them to one of these high priced enclaves. Or you will have to leave your family behind.
And what will you do when you get there? If you are fortunate, you will get to apply your expertise in a lab but more likely, you will be saddled with coordinating half a dozen contracts and remote labs where underpaid scientists do one thing in the absence of any context of a project. Yep, people who are not PhDs get to run HPLCs or robotics or something that requires a degree but is not particularly interesting. You are not part of a project team, you only get the information you need to know and you don’t need to know.
Those who do not have PhDs will end up working for CROs or some teensy little biotech that compensates you with equity. When the small company fails, and over 80% do according to your own ACS representatives who come to the local university to try to talk you into risking everything you own to start one, you will be encouraged to jump to another small company for a short period of time and then another and another. It will be like Silicon Valley, except that unlike projects in Silicon Valley, biological organisms rarely obey the laws of physics. They have their own agendas. Then, those same ACS representatives will tell you to make a deal with Merck or Pfizer who have a whole stable full of the best lawyers that money can buy who will write 400 page contracts to ease you out of your patent rights. Your own ACS representatives will tell you to take the lousy 1% return that the big pharmas offer you and consider yourself lucky. Oh, yes, they really did say that, Madeleine. I have witnesses.
So, here we have thousands of people jumping from company to company, without many benefits, without much of a salary but lots of promises that aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, and without any pension or security. And with that, you’re supposed to be able to rent a house. Let’s just throw out actually OWNING a home, Madeleine. Even if a bank will give you a mortgage, you’d have to be totally nuts to get yourself into one with no prospects of employment stability. Those of us in NJ have learned that lesson the hard way. You might not even be able to buy a car. If you’re a woman, you might as well get your tubes tied. If you get pregnant, you can’t work in the lab for long. And if you can’t work in the lab, you’re going to look like you’re slacking. Maternity leave? In these economic conditions? What person in their right mind would take that kind of risk? There are hundreds of thousands of unemployed scientists right now who would be more than willing to take whatever job they can get even if that meant taking over from a more well qualified woman. Stabbing women in the back and taking over their projects is standard operating procedure for any guy who wants to secure one of the few remaining jobs in the industry game of employment musical chairs. I’ve seen the number of women in certain departments plummet as they were either forced out or laid off while their male colleagues snagged the peach positions in Cambridge. It happens all the time.
What you are lecturing us to take, Madeleine, is the same insecure precariat existence that Michelle Obama was so cluelessly passionate about in her DNC speech. Isn’t it great that so many teachers will work for no pay? Isn’t it wonderful that so many dedicated, smart chemists will go work for peanuts and an uncertain, unstable economic existence? What patriots!
Madeleine, we do have caloric requirements. We need a roof over our heads. As a military brat, I’m used to moving every year or two. I didn’t always like it but my background makes me pretty receptive to shifting gears and learning new things. I went out of my way to go back into the lab in my last year of work to learn molecular biology and crystallography and I *loved* it. In middle age, I decided to do something that some of my more lofty, PhD carrying colleagues felt was beneath them. Many of the PhDs I worked with think that past a certain point, lab work is a step down.
Don’t you get it, Madeleine?? I’m the person you were referring to with the passion and interest to do the work. I was working on my projects literally to the very last minutes I had a job. I had 4 months from the announcement of my layoff until my last day and I worked like a maniac those last 4 months, staying well into the night to solve my structures because I loved my work and I knew I might never have that experience again in my lifetime. But it made no difference to the people who wanted me gone to satisfy their numbers. Those people even sent us emails a couple of weeks after the layoff announcements congratulating themselves for reducing costs and making the analysts quarterly earnings predictions. Those reduced costs were me and my unfortunate colleagues who were left jobless in the middle of Pharmageddon smack dab in the heart of the worst recession since the 1930’s.
Who the heck do you think you’re talking to, Madeleine? I collaborate with people who have taken very steep cuts in salary and while they’re grateful to have any job at all, they can’t make their mortgage payments. I know people who have had to commute to one state for part of the week and only see their families on weekends. Like diamond miners in Soweto. They share apartments with other chemists. My own daughter’s dad works in a different country for months at a time on a contract without any benefits.
This is no way to treat your smartest citizens. And frankly, I have no idea why any of us take it. The unemployment rate among chemists, even PhDs, is much, much higher than is being reported. It has to be because we are all laid off. One of the companies I worked for, Wyeth, laid off 19,000 people when it was bought by Pfizer including all by a handful of my former colleagues. The company I worked for last year has shut down the facility and transferred only a couple dozen people to their Cambridge facility. I met one person going to Cambridge who was extremely worried that the job would be temporary at best.
But we’re supposed to uproot our very talented children to go chasing our dreams and take whatever job we can at vastly reduced salaries. In my case, much of what I do can be done from my home but we’ve got to go out and find the work and keep finding it and keep finding it. We will never have a moment’s security and as our savings dwindle and unemployment insurance is denied to the self-employed, we will be constantly worried about how we’re going to pay the bills.
And let’s not even start on how we’re supposed to fork over $33.00 per paper in an ACS publication when we need to do research. Saddling new small companies and self-employed people with these outrageous digital copy costs of material that was given to you for free is a little like shooting the baby on the way out of the womb. What’s that all about? Madeleine’s family has to subsist on $800K+/year but a hard working researcher footing their own bills is going to be able to fork over $33/copy for an obtuse 4 page paper?
What about the ACS’s patriotic duty? Because of your organization’s greedy publication pricing structure, most of us can’t afford to even do the preliminary research to do our work. We have to make friends with university professors with licenses and instead of just downloading the paper to our computers at home, need to make special trips to university libraries. Do you know how annoying it is to find that the paper you really need is a buried citation in the paper you read at the university library and now you need to make yet another trip??
Not only is your pricing policy greedy and anachronistic, it doesn’t even make sense financially. You’re not going to get us to pay $33.00 a copy. Nooooo, we’ll get it for free from some other source. Do you think we just fell off the turnip truck? That means the ACS gets nothing. If you adopted an iTunes model and charged one or two dollars a digital copy, that might actually make you money. But no, you’d rather screw the very people you are excoriating for not working hard enough for their new American precariat existences.
And what are you doing about the visa problem, Madeleine? What are you doing to protect those of us new self-employed and contractors who need to get paid regularly and no longer have labor protections? What are you doing about getting us low cost group health insurance policies, not gap insurance? Why aren’t you working with the Freelancers Union to help chemists make the transition? Why aren’t you lobbying congress on our behalf and proposing private-public partnerships to take over abandoned labs in NJ to put people back to work? Do you know what the unemployment rate is in NJ? It’s almost 10%. What is it you are doing with the $800K+ dollars the ACS is paying you every year? Writing clueless Op/Ed pieces about people in the trenches who you know nothing about is not the best use of your time, Madeleine.
When the industry is doing it’s best to kill research in this country and when professors are telling their grad students to not pursue a career in chemistry and dedicated chemists are losing their lifestyles and their houses and their careers after decades of hard work, you’ve got a lot of nerve telling me how to raise my kids. I’m not going to encourage my bright, multilingual Brooke to become some economically insecure lab rat indentured to a bunch of greedy vulture capitalists.
From where I am sitting, my patriotic duty is to tell the truth about what is happening to us so that maybe someone takes an interest in preserving the last tiny shreds of American scientific infrastructure that are left. And if that makes you uncomfortable or conflicts with the lies you’ve been telling our governmental officials or your idea that well educated professional chemists should become desperate and cheap labor for your industrial friends, tough. You can always resign. Trust me, there are thousands of chemists who would jump at a chance to do your job better than you do at less than half of your salary.
Filed under: General | Tagged: ACS, Brian Verstag, chemisty as a profession., Madeleine Jacobs, unemployment | 31 Comments »