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Science Careers: Run Away, Little Children, Run Away!

Unemployed scientists at last week's BioNJ Expo at Rutgers Univerisity

Derek Lowe’s blog from inside the pharma industry, In the Pipeline, highlighted an Op/Ed piece by Josh Bloom in the New York Post yesterday titled, “America’s Vanishing Science Jobs”.  I don’t know Bloom (and this is weird because we have a past company in common.  Collegeville?  Pearl River?) but he nails the problem facing the unappreciated American scientist in the first paragraph:

The folks at Scientific American have launched “1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days” — a program to bring together scientists, teachers and students to improve America’s “dismal” showing among wealthy countries (27th out of 29) in graduating college students with degrees in science or engineering. I’m sure they mean well — but, at least as it applies to the field of chemistry, “1,000 Unemployed Scientists Living With Their Parents at Age 35 While Working at the Gap” would be a better name.

Back in the 90’s, I thought we were going to be eclipsed by China and India as well.  Then, I realized that China, and Russia too, had let its creme de la creme emigrate to America.  America benefitted from that wave.  Graduate level classes were full of Asian students.  It was a bit intimidating.

And then they blended in and we came to realize that although they are extremely hard working, focussed and fanatically well prepared in math, there is just as much variation in talent among Asian scientists as American scientists.  That’s because to be well trained in math and science is necessary but not sufficient.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to an observation that to master a subject, whether it is a field of study, profession or musical instrument, and to become an expert, requires 10,000 hours of practice.  The ability to discover drugs also develops over many years of practice.  A scientist doesn’t arrive in a lab ready to find a new drug simply because he/she comes from a country whose kids rank number one in math.  Even newly minted PhDs need a few years of seasoning before they’re useful and they’re still only novices.  Gladwell is right.  It takes a good 10 years before you develop a degree of comfort in doing drug discovery after you’ve seen many different kinds of problems and have tried various approaches to solving them, lathered, rinsed, repeated, over and over again.  It is very rare to find someone who gets it the first time.  In fact, I have never met any such person.  It’s a journey for even the brightest.

It wouldn’t even be correct to say that advanced technology can speed up the process.  We’ve seen many different new technologies like high throughput screening robotics, genomics, transgenic animal models and combinatorial chemistry.  Each one of these technologies did produce results but sometimes, we are left with more data and unanswered questions.  Speeding things up created new problems to be solved and sometimes lead us down new avenues of inquiry.  All of that information has to be processed, categorized, understood.  It takes time.

So, now China and India are going to jump on the drug discovery bandwagon.  As more and more companies outsource not just the routine tasks but whole research units, we may indeed see discovery speed up and it might look miraculous.  But that would be ignoring the groundwork that was laid here in America. And it will still take time, perhaps decades, for the Chinese to catch up.   In the meantime, the people who did the gruntwork for the past couple of decades are being asked to step aside and sacrifice their careers for the good of the shareholders.  Those scientists have seen their research stop/started frequently since the 1990’s.  Mergers and acquisitions and management schemes from business administration majors and consultants have interfered with the ability of scientists to process the information coming out of this amazing era of biological breakthroughs.

It won’t be long before the executives and shareholders realize they’ve made a mistake and that new drugs *can’t* be designed like new Intel chips.  They also can’t be discovered by breaking the discovery process into neatly manageable “on-time” bits, each component made in a tedious, routine manner to be assembled at some American endpoint by a handful of designer/engineers.  Biological systems are not like cars or new high tech gadgets, and understanding those biological systems is aided by an economy of scale that is destroyed by atomization into neatly manageable “on-time” bits that can be turned on and off following the whimsies of the business cycle. Bussiness types intuitively know this right about their undergrad sophomore year when they’re forced to pick a major but they forget it by the time they graduate from Wharton.

That leaves us to tell our children that their lives are going to change.  No more vacations, piano lessons and daytrips to the city.  Get used to parents who are constantly worried about money, dental appointments that must be saved for in advance and how they are going to pay the mortgage on vastly reduced salaries.  The children of scientists see their parents, weighted down with degrees, some of the smartest people they know, deprived of the means to make a living.  The parents have heard their children ask, “What’s the point of all this work and college?  Where did it get you?”  We still make our kids study like fiends but we tell them,

Don’t go into science, there’s no economic security in it.

The Scientific American initiative is a futile one.  The places where those 1000 scientists are located have also seen the most devastation.  The scientists that have lived to see another day in smaller companies with less economic stability and longer hours know that the job they love today could be gone in a flash tomorrow when the venture capital runs out or the management decides capriciously to make a change.  We tell our kids to learn to live with less or go into finance, become a spy or study plumbing.

Don’t waste your time learning molecular biology and organic chemistry.  Resist the siren song of the lab.  Run away, run away!

11 Responses

  1. I’ve always assumed the primary benefit of a math or science degree was the ability to emigrate. Well that and it’s not like a lot of other careers (lawyer comes to mind) are exactly doing much better. Basically the top 1% are cramming down everyone else’s wages and it’s now spread to much of the professional/educated class. It’s simply a continuation of what happened to the blue collar worker and then the IT worker. So I’m back at point one – children take your science and math skills to a country where they will be appreciated.

    • I think you’re missing the point. Math and science is valued nowhere in the world. Certain countries in Europe have unions that protect science workers but if the companies that still employed them weren’t forced to keep them on, they’d be gone in a flash.

      Business types have the wrong idea about science. They think it can be broken down into tasks and reassembled into intellectual property. But where that might be efficient for making a car, it is incredibly inefficient for drug discovery where delays with contracting and the separation of the various components of a project can slow the process down to a crawl.

      Business does not yet value us. But it won’t be long now before the massive clusterf&*k done to American science catches up to it. The latest reports of drug shortages is the canary in the coal mine. It’s going to get worse in the next couple of years when a lot of blockbuster drugs go off patent and there’s nothing left in the pipelines to replace them.

      Will we get smart and figure out how to use our expertise to issue demands? It’s not a science geek’s nature and developing that business savvy isn’t easy for us. But fortunately, a lot of us have time on our hands and an MBA isn’t that hard to get.

      • Oh no, what ever are they going to do when their patents expire? I mean, really? You were watching the HCR debate, where the “liberal” president and his supermajorities in Congress somehow just didn’t have the votes to allow Americans to import cheaper drugs from overseas. That tells me that I’m sure the pharma suits’ business partners inside the beltway have their backs.

        • Wow, you just never let your beautiful theories get destroyed by ugly facts do you?
          The industry has been poorly managed and it *does* have a substantial presence in Washington.
          But it is also the fact that the patents are about to expire for a lot of drugs and there is very little in the pipeline to replace them. Research costs money. Do you think we do this for free? Do you think it’s easy? Ok, why don’t you try it then. How many compounds have you synthesized this year? How many constructs have you done? How many crystal datasets have you solved? How many assays have you put together? How many drugs have you designed? How many failures have you experienced before you got a lead?
          Come back when you’ve walked a year in our lab coats.

  2. BTW, I took that picture last week. There are a couple of empty chairs in the back but other than that, the auditorium was packed and about thirty people in the back where I took this picture were standing. During the expo portion of the program, the room next door was jammed with people trying out their elevator speeches for a handful of biotechs that were participating. There were scientists of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders and national origin. With so many layoffs recently, these are not the underperformers. I suspect that most of them, like me, have gotten very good to excellent performance appraisals in the past several years. They were simply not wanted after the restructuring, merger, bankruptcy. They represent a number in the debit column of the spreadsheet, therefore, they must go. Ta-ta!

  3. I went through this so much longer ago than you, back in the 70’s which is when I went into psychoanlysis training. It takes 10 years to make a good teacher, analyst, almost anything professional that is worthwhile. The suits have confused information with knowing. They are not the same.

    Foucault: Knowledge is not for knowing;knowledge is for cutting.

    RD just bite the bullet. You are far too intelligent, too well educated, and too good a writer to be looking for a job job, however interesting and fulfilling. You have a daughter. Going overseas and living in a foreign country is an interesting option while you think things over. Just get it that we are not human beings to them. We are squids of ink on a balance sheet. We are nothing to them. Nothing no matter how good we are, how dedicated, how successful in what we do. It doesn’t matter. And in the Order of Production and Exchange it is never going to matter. Never. Just see that one thing.

  4. Well, if there are no drugs in the pipeline, then life expectancy is going to fall, right? And you think that’s not the desired policy objective why, exactly? (I love these posts, and we should encourage science and scientists, but…)

  5. Life expectancy will not fall on average — it just will not lengthen. (Of course, if it is your life that won’t get saved by a medical discovery that might have been made that is cold comfort.)

    That’s not where management’s focus is: it is on whether they keep costs low this quarter so they can earn that bonus and get a new Lexus with it. Or go to Tuscany. They deserve to go to Tuscany, you know. The fact that profits will fall off a cliff next year when their patents run out and they did not develop drugs over the last 10 years to fill in the pipeline has no meaning to them — until it happens and they find themselves fired or the stock value drops like a rock.

    In any event, they think they can buy some other smaller company with a patented drug that will let them keep on getting those big bonuses until they retire to Martha’s Vineyard or Costa Rica.

    “Scientists? We don’t need any stinking scientists!”


    • I’m going to attribute it mostly to stupidity than malice. The executives really need to spend a year in the labs before they get it.
      Other than that, the incentives for keeping research working optimally are not there. Management gets rewarded for cutting costs not for patience.

      • I added the last comment as a snark. I agree that it is not malice, but simply think that saving lives or even the long term viability of the company is not what they are focused on. Management is focused on their results for this year and this quarter. The executives will, sadly, never spend a year in the lab or even a month. Best we can hope is that their eyes open when their shareholder value falls off a cliff.

        But it will take years to re-assemble Humpty Dumpty.


  6. Few years back when my son was ready to go to college I wanted him to study computers. He said to me every idiot and his brother are going to study that. so he studied Mechanical Eng. After his graduation he worked for may be 5 years then he quit and went back for MBA (Harvard). I guess he figured that is the way to go. I keep thinking how many MBAs do we need when the people who are doing the actual work keep going down. Along time a go my brother used to make jokes at economists (he taught math at the college level) they wait for you to make the money first then they want to (help) you invest it, what is harder making it or spending it.

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