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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.

27 Responses

  1. It’s rather nice up here in the burbs near Cambridge, MA, and our schools are pretty good. Maybe you and Brooke should check us out. The politics are your flavor, too.

    • Cambridge is an elusive dream for many of us. Only the few and the proud are offered spots up there.

      • Aren’t you one of the few and the proud? Seriously, there are job listings for research scientists in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies listed on Monster.com and other online sources for the Boston/Cambridge area. The cost of living is high around here, too, but the salaries usually reflect that. Brooke would adapt quickly to paarkin her caar.

        • Trust me on this. They are extremely picky up there. If you don’t have a PhD in a very specific area chances of landing a job up there is very slim. I don’t have a PhD. I have only been working at a PhD level for seven years. Doesn’t matter. Companies up there feel that they can hire the creme de la creme from ivy league schools. Anything less than a stellar PhD pedigree is considered a character flaw.
          I know what’s available in Cambridge. It’s going to be difficult if not impossible to get up there.

  2. It’s all so depressing. I’m terrified about where this is all going to end up.

    • We figure that if even china has a shortage of r&d specialists, then it won’t be long before industry needs more of us again. The problem is that if it’s even a couple of years down the road before the pendulum swings back and small molecule drugs are hotter than spit again, it will be too late for those of us un or underemployed. We are mostly concentrated in extremely high cost of living states and the future is too uncertain for most of us to stick it out that long. Ive talked to a lot of r&d folks who are bailing out and kissing their careers good bye. Let someone younger and more naive study organic chemistry and molecular biology. We won’t recommend it to our own children.

  3. Every time I pick up the newspaper I think, “we are all so massively f*cked!”

    things are not looking good for America.

    • Ya know, I don’t think older conservative voters, libertarians and tea partiers are going to get it until they feel it in their own pocketbooks. They must experience pain personally. Like sticking their hands on a hot stove. Until they are burned, probably repeatedly, they will not associate cause with effect.
      Count on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News to keep them confused for as long as possible. But sooner or later, Americans will buy a clue and the pendulum will swing back. Even 2012 is not too soon. A third party candidate will clean up.

  4. If we aren’t already in the double dip recession/depression/whatever I’m sure the states are driving us there with austerity+.

    RD – I bet the BLS doesn’t want to release the data because it would be scary.

    Of course, maybe they really do have old numbers and run a “tight ship” without any extra employees collecting the latest data because those employees would cost money and require health insurance and pension.

    • I’m guessing it’s mostly the latter combined with the fact that R&D industrial scientists are not on their radar. They don’t know what to do with us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to register for access to some newspaper site and when it comes to profession, none of the categories in the pull down menu fit “scientist-R&D-life sciences industry”. We’re america’s dirty little secret. The people who deliver cures to the public. But that public has conflicted emotions about us. It needs us but doesn’t want to pay for our expertise.

      • I believe the NEW “common sense” of buying stuff says you can always find a better deal if you are willing to look around.

        A $2 box of cheerios from walmart is the same as the $3 box at the local grocery store.

        The old common sense is that you get what you pay for.

        Eventually, people may come to realize that you really do get what you pay for – one way or another. The jobs left when we don’t make or invent stuff anymore are not going to be middle class.

        • What I’m seeing is the trend of turning scientists into contractors with the completely irrational idea from the finance guys that if we are forced to compete with one another for work, productivity will improve. This is nonsense for a number of reasons. First of all, the overhead costs of scientific research are astronomical for scientists turned entrepreneurs. That forces them into middle men contracting firms that farm out scientists to companies. The contracting firms charge companies an arm and a leg for the temp employees but don’t pay well or provide bennies to those same scientists. It’s a scam for middle men. Secondly, while you can probably contract out some routine work, like ADMET profiling and analytical work, it’s not possible to atomize research project teams. No, it is not possible and the finance guys are deluding themselves if they think research will be more productive if they break us up and make us spend our time negotiating contracts with third party providers. But it goes even deeper than that. Solving a research problem requires a body of people looking at the same problem using the same information, contributing to that body of knowledge with their own expertise until a more complete picture of the nature of biological target solidifies. When third parties are forced on this process, proprietary information barriers go up, sharing of information goes down, time is wasted doing businessy things and scientists do not gain expertise that they can bring to the next project because the fiduciary relationship they have with the project is temporary and monetary in nature. The finance guys see scientists like single skill workers that are swappable. That kind of thinking ruins science and reduces our years of study to a formality that will rarely see practice. It’s going to kill research, IMHO. I could be wrong but treating your scientists like low wage computer chip workers is not the best use of research dollars.

      • I remember a decade ago that even engineers were grouped together with professions like “architect.” Job titles are getting less and less capable of describing all the demands put on the knowledge community.

        In the low-end sector, they’re trying to move to the zero training model. stick a patty in a machine, press the button and an fully assembled hamburger comes out. At the same time, people with any intellectual flexibility are being put on every stupid task there is.

        i’m supposed to be essenatially a production engineer. I’ve ended up doing the assembly, programming tests stations, assembling test equipment, building servers, giving presentations, maintaining databases, and ironically doing a litte architecture.

        How does that go on a resume?

  5. I had Cambridge, as in the real one in England lloing at my research the other day RD. Follow me, K? Because to treat what has happened while big pharmboys were target-marketing? In order to save the species and planet — we will need to treat what has happened in an alchemical fashion by reversing the trend backwards? Because — well — stay tuned. In the mean time! Anybody who wants to refer a kid into THE ALCHEMY project can? It is a blog based project that would not have been possible without wordpress.

    Chemists will be needed, RD. And funds can be raised. Hugs.

    Little Women
    never underestimate us! xxoo!



  6. And then the Government will be wondering why we are sinking downwards from no. 1 in everything..as you say it aptly, RD..DOH..

  7. Ireland’s new government on a collision course with EU

    Maybe the Irish will have the courage to take down the banksters who did them damage. Americans don’t.

    Declan Ganley, the Irish businessman who led the 2008 No vote to the Lisbon Treaty, said Ireland must “have the balls” to threaten debt default and withdrawal from the single currency.

    “We have a hostage, it is called the euro,” he said. “The euro is insolvent. The only question is whether Ireland should be sacrificed to keep the Ponzi scheme going. We have to have a Plan B to the misnamed bailout, which is to go back to the Irish Punt.”

    • Ever get the feeling that a whole bunch of money has gone awry? I do.

      • Ever wonder why we can’t reboot?
        It’s because we are tied to a ponzi scheme of our own- the 401k. As long as we’re forced to put our money down like chips at craps and not into secure annuities and pensions, the bankers will own the world.

  8. I think the people have long known that their Senators and Representatives are on the take and that the president is the one who sold the most of his soul to the special interests. Sure, they grumbled about it but were comfortable enough not to do anything and the politicians knew it. Now it’s coming home to them or someone they know or love.

    The question is how long can the sycophants in the print and broadcast media keep the lid on it. I read where some of the demonstrators in Madison start to chant, “Fox News lies!” every time they see the camera crews. Somebody should clue them in so they do the same for the rest of the news media.

    Riverdaughter, maybe it’s time you called the Chinese embassy to see about a work visa, give Brook a chance to see how the other side of the world looks and works.

  9. “And the Republicans better not get too comfy either.”

    You say that based on what?

    I said around the time of Obama’s inauguration — when everyone was writing off the Republican party — that if the GOP were a stock, I’d invest every last dollar in it. Was I wrong then?

    Right now, the party is riding high and will soon ride higher. The thing will fall apart eventually due to a rift between the faction that wants to repair America and the faction that wants to end the American experiment altogether.

    Krugman recently and belatedly noticed this second faction, which is growing in power. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/11/opinion/11krugman.html?_r=1&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

    • Um, I don’t think so. Americans know something is wrong but they can’t quite put their fingers on it. I will stick to my theory that right wing media is very good at confusion. But at the bottom of it all, in their hearts, Americans really like their social safety net programs. They like public education. They like bridges and roads and people in government who handle stuff so they don’t have to.
      This newest attack on public unions is getting a lot of support and making a lot of people wonder what the fuck the republicans are up to. Maybe they’re taking things too far.

      • Naw. People STILL don’t get the message that the problem was deregulation. They STILL think that the problem is “socialism.”

        That attitude is inherent. Genetic. Ineradicable. You can’t change it. You could change that attitude about as easily as you could cause a third eye to pop out of your forehead through willpower alone.

        • Don’t think so. I don’t believe that people are that stupid. What they are is driven by group dynamics. They listen to what their neighbors listen to. It is much easier to not question too much. It saves time.
          But when your relatives who are well educated and hard working get thrown out of work through no fault of their own and end up losing everything? It starts to get their attention. Reality starts to not square with what they’ve been told.
          Give people a little credit.

      • Just to follow up my point above: Fire up Google and type in the words “economic crisis caused by too much regulation.” Of the nine million or so results, you may want to skim examples from the first page or two.

        That’s what most people believe. You couldn’t get them to sit through “Inside Job” (which tells the truth) if you held a gun to their heads.

        If I were a Republican, I would be feeling GREAT.

        • I’ll take you up on that challenge and get a copy of Inside Job to spring on my relatives.

          And no, if I were a politician from either party, I’d be feeling pretty nervous right now. Republicans are going to try to slam their policies through before they think anyone notices what they’re up to. But I wouldn’t count on that working out as well as they thought.

          I’m guessing that 2012 will be another throw the bums out year. No one is safe, especially Republicans. They’re in charge of the House and a lot of state legislatures.

  10. Don’t even consider buying into get rich quick schemes until you see our list of ones that work!

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