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    • Scenarios For America’s Political Future
      Let’s run thru the most likely possible victories in the upcoming federal election and consider what they mean for America’s future. Put them in 4 baskets. Trump wins. He does more bad stuff, situation continues to get worse, American post-WWII style multilateral hegemony and trade order takes huge hits. Biden or Harris win. Harris will […]
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So, how did we get here??

Sam trembled at Susan’s actions.  The body laid on the floor twitching.

Sam muttered to himself, “Not in my house, not in my house…”

It was too late.  Susan had tasted blood.  She knew how to kill now.

Beginning lines of one of Brook’s uncompleted stories (circa unknown.  It was years ago.)

How did we get here and where does this story go?

 

 

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Saturday: Bureau of Labor Statistics Completely Misses Meltdown in R&D

Last week, my lab partner and I sat in on a webinar from the American Chemical Society (ACS) discussing employment and employment trends of its members.  Now, the fact that the ACS is even having a webinar like this is significant.  It’s because so many chemists are out of work.  In previous recessions, this bloc of well educated, technically savvy workers was able to weather the economic downturn relatively well.  Not this recession.  Now, our trend lines follow the rest of the country’s workers.  We’re not as badly off as workers without college degrees but there is no doubt that the ACS sees ominous signs that there is a decline in our ability to put our degrees to work for us.

There were two dudes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on hand to give the government’s outlook on employment for our sector.  And by and large, they were useless.  Problem?  What problem?  According to the BLS, our sector is experiencing a minor blip of something like 3.8%.  The ACS only shows a 5+% unemployment rate.  Why are you chemists belly aching?  And look!  If you switch to biochemistry and biophysics, your sector is going to be booming right up into 2018.  Oh, sure, if you’re a chemical engineer, life sucks for you -because we’ve moved production facilities out of the US.  Ever wanted to get your drugs from Canada?  Well, now you can.

The questions that came from the audience demonstrated confusion.  Those numbers are not what *we’re* experiencing.  Just about every R&D chemist I know is unemployed right now.  The pharma sector, despite what might be your personal distaste for the sector, has laid off more than 100,000 people since 2008.  Pfizer alone laid off 19,000 people last year including nearly all of the chemists at Wyeth with whom they merged in 2009.  Pfizer is preparing to lay off more this year and ship some of the rest to Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Presumably, those are the chemists that can switch to biochemistry and biophysics.  Really, guys, it’s not that hard.  OK, it was grueling but very rewarding.  I did it last year.  Then *I* got laid off.  D’OH!  But the carnage is not limited to Pfizer.  They’re all doing it.

The general impression I got from the BLS guys is that they really don’t know anything about this sector.  They admit that they haven’t updated their subcategories for the sector since 2007 and aren’t scheduled to reclassify them until 2012.  The predictions they are making about the sector for 2008-2018 are based on statistics gathered prior to the financial collapse of 2008.  By the time the BLS catches up, it will have missed the hollowing out of the R&D due to the financial guys eating what they kill.  The BLS also doesn’t seem to have a category for R&D chemists.  We’re considered “manufacturing”.  Because we’re not in academia?  I don’t know.  It seems very vague and indistinct but apparently, some miracle is already in progress and we are all shortly to be gainfully employed making antibodies.

The ACS is not a whole lot better off.  Many of the people in their target audience who participate in their annual survey of employment no longer get email from them.  It’s hard to reach people who are no longer employed.   It’s also hard to justify paying your ACS dues if you need to pay your car insurance and you aren’t getting an income.  Better to borrow a copy of C&E News from a friend who still gets it, provided you can still find someone who isn’t in the same boat you’re in.

Here’s what the people on the inside of the industry are seeing: small molecule chemistry in this country is dead or dying.  The money guys have decided that making new small molecule drugs is too risky.  Or expensive.  They are shipping the small molecule synthesis overseas to Chindia or to countries where the labor laws protect workers better.  The industry is pulling out of traditional medicines and investing in biologicals.  That’s because biologicals have better patent protection (well, at the *present* time.  Politics being what they are and pharma being indiscreetly reviled amongst Democrats could change all of that.) But biologicals are going to be expensive too and there’s no guarantee that the end result is going to provide better therapies.  The risk is still high but not as high as it is for traditional medicines when it comes to money.  So, the money is going to biotechs and R&D is bugging out of some geographical locations to be crammed into Cambridge, MA.  You want to know where our best employment prospects are?  China.  Yep, there’s an inexplicable shortage of R&D chemists in a country with 2 billion people.  Even China can’t keep up with China.

Also, the finance guys continue to blame the researchers for the lack of new drugs in the pipeline.  What the finance guys either forget to mention or don’t know is that researchers work their asses off for new drug entities but the bar for approval by the FDA keeps getting raised.  It’s getting harder and harder to make a drug that has zero risks for patient, lawyers and shareholders.  It doesn’t help that the industry has been careening from mergers and acquisitions, new technologies, management theories (that are really not helpful, guys), outsourcing and the thirst for “get rich quick” schemes that would put Ralph Cramden to shame.  Everything that has been going on for the past 15 years that has sucked the life out of research has been on warp hyperdrive since 2008.   What would make the industry more profitable is for research companies to take the long view, buck the pressure of the finance guys and have patience so that research productivity can actually happen.  Merck is one such company.  But Merck is an exception under pressure.  Long term thinking can’t happen when we have financialized our own retirements with a 401K system and a roulette wheel of high stakes brokerages and quants.  We expect our investment portfolios to keep increasing indefinitely and some of those profits come at the expense of our own jobs.  In effect, we are our own worst enemies.

Meanwhile, R&D infrastructure is going to continue to melt away.  The chemists thrown out of work today won’t find a job for a mean of 11 months.  They may not be able to find a job in biotech.  With so many of them out of work, employers can be very persnickety and choosy.  And with the fast pace of scientific discovery these days, it’s hard to keep skills and knowledge fresh and current without practice and access to scientific journals.  In short, we’re doooomed, both on a personal professional level and as a country that used to take pride in its R&D leadership.

But the country and it’s lawmakers won’t know that for several more years if the BLS has been feeding them stale statistics.  They’ll keep partying like it’s 2007.

In other news:

The Irish have had it with their incompetent and bank loving sycophantic government. Fianna Fail, the party that has been in charge for the last 60 of 80 years, has been crushed in the latest election:

“I think Brian Cowen was probably the worst taoiseach we’ve ever had,” said David Ryan, 76, a retired businessman, using the Irish word for prime minister and speaking of Fianna Fail’s former leader. “I am totally angry,” Mr. Ryan went on — not just at Mr. Cowen, who resigned last month, but at the Irish banks whose spectacular debts his government promised to guarantee on a fateful day in 2008. “They were totally corrupt.”

Yes, if you screw your citizens to prop up corrupt and criminally negligent banks, you will be politically annihilated.  Hmmm, this next bit is interesting.  You could substitute “American” for “Irish” and either one of our parties for “Fianna Fail” and it would read just as well:

Unemployment is up to 13.8 percent (it was as low as 4.2 percent as recently as 2005); public spending has been savagely and repeatedly cut since 2008; the deficit has risen to 14.3 percent; and current predictions suggest that 100,000 people will emigrate in the next several years, from a population of 4.3 million. The bill from the struggling banks may, in the end, total upward of $135 billion 100 billion euros,Ö in an economy with a G.D.P. of $220 billion 160 billion euros.Ö

The housing bubble that fueled the boom has collapsed, along with the banks that made the loans that led to it in the first place. In November, the country was forced to accept a humiliating and onerous $92.8 billion 67.5 billion euro international loan package that tied it to a brutal four-year austerity program. The package came with such unfavorable interest rates that some economists feel the country might be unable to afford even to service the debt.

Many of these problems can be directly attributed to poor decisions made by the government, said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern history at University College Dublin. “There has been a complete and utter lack of leadership in Ireland,” Professor Ferriter said. As for Fianna Fail, he said, “They’ve actually managed to alienate all sections of our society.”

The question is, do the Irish have someplace else to go?  Do Americans?  Because I see Obama going the way of Brian Cowan.  The jig is up.  And the Republicans better not get too comfy either.  2012 could be a major game changer.