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Why not put the unemployed geeks on the government payroll?

Brad DeLong says give everyone $10,000.  Just give it to them.  And Atrios says why not put us on the fed payroll?

Why not put us on the government payroll?

I’ve been making that proposal for months now, especially for laid off pharmaceutical workers.  There are thousands of us.  Pfizer alone laid off almost the entire research personnel of Wyeth Research in one fell swoop after they merged in 2008.  There are a lot of overeducated, unemployed geeks out there who need work.  And it turns out that pharmaceutical companies didn’t do themselves any favors by merging the pants off of each other.  The “patent cliff” is looming, some companies are already sliding over and the years of relentless merging, followed by restructuring has ruined their research units.  It’s not going to get better for a long time.  Couple that with the therapeutic areas that pharma thinks are too expensive and you have a medicinal catastrophe coming up with antibiotics, reproductive health and central nervous system drugs.

So, why not buy up some mothballed labs (there are a $^&*load here in New Jersey), and recruit from the local talent pool?  Get some equipment at auction, pay these people a decent salary (in NJ, you need to make more than a post doc or people will faint from hunger over their hotplates) and let it go.  See what happens.  There will have to be some precautions taken.  For example, for real discovery to take place, there has to be a firewall between research and the business office.  That doesn’t mean that there should be no accountability but it’s better if the MBAs are not allowed to meddle.  No more restructuring.

Anthony Nicholls, the founder of Openeye, a developer of computational chemisty applications, says that big business has forgotten the value of play in discovery.  In his last Ant Rant called Curing Pharma (1) Avoiding Hype Based Science, he discussed the trends that pharma talked itself into.  Ant calls them Hype, I call them get-rich-quick schemes that management’s constant thirst for ever increasing quarterly profits demanded from research heads.  Some of these schemes weren’t ready for prime time.  It’s not that they had no value.  It’s just that to really make use of the technology, you have to be able to play with it and explore it to see what it does and what it can be made to do.  Ant writes:

The only sure way to get to the other side of Hype Hill, to get to the real utility, is to play. You have to be prepared to let talented people goof around, sometimes with substantial budgets, and develop expertise. A couple of examples from outside our industry: Ray Dolby, who founded the eponymous Dolby Labs in 1976. He engendered a culture of experimentation that has had few parallels. His engineers could buy any equipment they liked, as long as it was less than a couple of hundred thousand dollars! Today Ray is worth $2.7 billion and his company has an enduring reputation for innovation as well as profits. Or consider when the British tried to interest the American armed forces in the Harrier JumpJet. After a few flights the American test pilots began in-flight manipulations of the adjustable thrusters that were only supposed to be horizontal in flight and vertical in takeoff, risking expensive structural failure but learning that the plane’s real value was maneuverability. It helps having “management” willing to buy you new toys if you break the old ones!

Play is not cheap: people playing means people not contributing to the apparent bottom line. Tati’s great Play Time, in the end, did not make money—it’s a risky business, movies and drugs. But if you want to innovate, to avoid the pitfalls of hype, you have to commit to play time—invest in constructing a climate of curiosity and experimentation. Let real science take root. And stick with it.

Such a government proposition would be very risky in this political and social environment.  But I think Ant has a good point.  It is very hard to be creative when you’re constantly under stress and where the management thinks you are a drag on the bottom line, therefore you must be miserable in your job.  Having fun at your job shouldn’t be considered a moral hazard.  The government could potentially strike gold by giving unemployed geeks some money and a lab and telling them to go play.  And just think, no marketing and advertising departments.  No executives competing for the biggest bonus.  No constant restructuring.  Down the road a few years, you get your drug candidates and the patents that now belong to everyone.  And a devastated state like New Jersey has productive overeducated geeks once again contributing to the state treasury while simultaneously redistributing our wealth to Alabama.

It’s just so crazy it might work!

One thing that probably *won’t* work is the idea that we are all going to become entrepreneurs without government intervention.  Maybe there are other industries where entrepreneurship is feasible but it’s not going to happen in the biotech field where the equipment, reagents and start-up costs are enormous and many moving parts are required to get the ball rolling.  In Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men, there was a suggestion after talking to a Swedish official about the Swedish economic meltdown that eventually, the people who were laid off would start their own businesses.  But we’re not Sweden.  Our safety net is collapsing and the money for a small garage biotech just isn’t there.  We need a big, integrated lab where people get their questions answered by popping down the hall to ask the resident expert.  So, if Obama administration officials are waiting for a thousand points of biotech light in NJ, they can stop holding their breaths.  What we need is for the government to employ us.

As for the value of play, here’s a couple of videos to mull over.  Remember the Finnish Baby Boxes?  A consortium called TUPA has designed a new type of baby box for Kela, the Finnish health ministry.  The layette (complete with condoms and lube) would come in the TUPA box instead of a cardboard box.  The first box shows what the TUPA box is good for (cradle, table, chairs, toybox, layette delivery box) and the second perfectly illustrates Ant’s point about the value of play.

Play your way to a new design:

29 Responses

  1. I’m totally in love with the Finnish Baby Boxes. It’s like a baby shower in a box!

    • Aren’t they great? And this one is unlike the ones they’ve sent out since the 1930s. Up until now, the baby box was made of cardboard. It is intended to serve as a basinet for the first year. But I like this new one better because it is so versatile. The whole thing converts to a cradle that rocks. No, not that it rocks, I mean that it rocks back and forth. Total genius.

  2. What about a group of your fellow workers joining together to rent some warehouse space and used equipment? Start your own co-op. Figure out what your expertise is that might pay off more quickly in some form in order to finance the bigger breakthroughs on the side and down the road. Present your ideas to kickstarter for additional funding and then to venture capitalists.

    Be sure to have a coffeehouse on site for everyone to meet.

    • Nah-gah-happen. Trust me on this. Unemployed geeks do not have the money to do this. There are incubators all over the country that will help people do what you are suggesting. But the barriers to get something like this started in the biotech industry are very high. The start up costs are just too steep. There are a lot of moving pieces. A few years ago, it was easier to find venture capitalists who would sink money into a good idea. Not these days. Now, they want you to have done almost all of the work before they step in to bail you out and keep your house out of foreclosure. And those deals come with a very steep price, usually most of the future profits.
      Let’s put it this way, the big pharmas are getting out of research in this country. There are a lot of reasons for this. The primary reason is that research is extremely expensive and they have to cut costs somewhere to give their shareholders a pleasing aroma or burned sacrifices. Europe protects its geeks, China doesn’t care, they’ll take whatever they can get. Americans are the ones who get the shaft all the damn time. There is absolutely no one looking out for us. But if the government has some vague notion that we will all start up biotechs in our garage, they are smoking some serious crack, I can’t even tell you how much money it would cost. We’d be here all night. But suffice it to say that drugs are not ever discovered by one person. it takes many different kinds of expertise to pull it off, it takes years, and every piece of equipment and reagent is expensive.
      What you are proposing is simply not feasible for biotech. I know people want to believe you can just get Judy and Mickey together at a piano and put on a show but reality tends to be very ugly in the drug industry. And people have to be able to pay the mortgage and feed their kids in the meantime. That meantime could be a decade or more. My kid needs to be fed more regularly than that.

    • One other thing: This country has unreasonably high expectations about starting your own company. Not only do you have to spend a zillion hours in the lab, you have to be a businessperson too and hunt down all of the stuff you need, do the accounting, create a legal department, be a salesperson and hang out with arrogant MBA venture capitalists at dinner. It’s no wonder that 80% of most of the biotech start ups fail. It’s too much. Just the lab work alone could exhaust you and mean you’ll never see your family again. I have no idea why this country seems to be so dense on this issue but science for profit is not for sissies. It’s not even for steroid users. You would have to be superhuman to do it and the potential rewards, if you are lucky enough to get a venture capitalist to take it off your hands, are not all that great, No one is going to become Mark Zuckerberg rich by starting a garage biotech. Maybe the venture capitalists you sign your patents over to in a deal you can’t refuse will get filthy rich but you personally will not.
      There is a huge, huge world of difference between high tech and biotech. Our politicians better figure this out pretty quickly.

      • I’m just tossing ideas out and don’t have much sense of what is needed for scientific ventures. One positive is that the internet can be used to share information. Maybe a combination of small setups with people connected and a common goal is attainable? It could span the continent, or the world.

  3. I could really, really use about 6 more geeks right now. But I can’t afford them. If there were some program where the government paid part or most of their salary, I’d be all over that.

    • As it is, the small group of us are each working about 2.5 jobs each. My brains are falling out of my ears.

      • Each, each. 🙂 See, no brains left.

      • It would be better to foot the bill for partial salaries of geeks than to let their skills atrophy while they spend time at home in a fruitless quest for a job. {{sob!}}
        Give me a minute. Talk amongst yourselves. I’m all verklempt.

        • Agree. I bet there are lots of places that if they had a little assistance like that, they’d jump on it.

      • It sounds kind of fun. Actually, exciting.

        • There’s something really nice about a small team trying to do something a bit new. Even if they’re overworked, knowing there’s a cool goal makes it a good sort of stress.

          • Yes, there *is* something nice about that, for a lot of businesses other than biotech.
            If all you do is structural biology gene to structure, then, yes, a small group is perfectly fine and can be a lot of fun. But then you are just a service organization. Your scientists do a lot of technical work but are totally divorced from solving the problem of developing a drug.
            If all you do is synthetic chemistry, well, that can be done anywhere, and it is. You just get a bunch of cheap Indian PhDs in Hyderabad to do that. They have no interest in optimizing the drug either because that’s not their job. They are a service organization who contracts to churn out compounds.
            Same for the people who do the assays.
            And the people who do the analytical work.
            And the people who do the in vivo studies.
            So, what you have are a dozen or so little companies like the one you described that do one particular thing. But research and development of a drug requires that all of these people work together seamlessly. And they can’t. because they are a dozen separate companies You can’t just bop down the hall to the structural biology department and say, “I have a particularly active compound that I need to see in the active site. Can you do it?”
            You can’t do it because you have to contract that work to the structural biology company. Every crystallization, every synchrotron data run, every coot session has to be paid for. It *can* be done but it isn’t cost effective nor time efficient. Imagine you have to do that with each service for which you need some particular piece of information while you build your puzzle.
            But wait, there’s more:
            In order to solve the puzzle of the target, you need to meet with the people whose expertise has been contracted out and talk to them. You need to show the chemists the information that the structural biologists have found so that the chemists can think of new ligands. The chemists have to sit with the pharmacologists to figure out which functional groups give them the best activity in the primary and secondary assays. The pharmacologists have to meet with the people who understand biomarkers. And everyone has to meet with each other all together so they can see the material all at once so they can rearrange the pieces of the puzzle and swap pieces and try different configurations and have one of those, “Holy hemiola! I didn’t realize *blah* before today, what if I just…” That kind of stuff happen(ed)s to me all the time. I had eureka moments right up to the hour they told me my time was up and I had to leave the building. But if you are dealing with a dozen different independent companies, you will have to put up firewalls. The chemists can only know this tiny bit. The pharmacologists can only know that tiny bit. If someone clever in one of these companies could see all the tiny bits, they may be able to solve the puzzle before you can patent it first.
            And there will be much rejoicing amongst the business people who you will have to hire to keep it all straight. You might get pretty far in your R&D work and then discover that you need one particular type of information but you won’t be able to afford it. Or you may need structural biology work from the very beginning and can’t afford it so that’s that. Or you may find that you have a structure and and assay but can’t afford to order the thousands of compounds that you found through virtual screening. And even if you did have the money to buy the thousands of compounds, there is no guarantee that any of them will hit so your investment will be totally worthless and you won’t be able to recoup it.
            Do you see what I mean? Big Pharma is already trying this method. The company I worked for last had imposed this structure on R&D. The departments could no longer consult each other without a contract. It’s a nightmare. But the real intention is to make project teams go outside the company to find a cheaper service provider because they have been given permission to do that. I guess it is to teach us how expensive everything is. We already knew how expensive everything was. But before the pain of negotiating every damn HPLC separation, you could actually get things done without being your own business person. Now, you can’t. And there is a lot of disruption and unnecessary and inefficient decision making. If you are a project team leader and you need structural biology work AND a big library of compounds but you can’t afford both, do you order the structure in order to see what you’re doing or do you just blindly make the compounds and hope one of them hits? How do you decide which compounds to make? Do you get the drug design group to make you a library? Can you afford that? And what if the designer says, “I really need to see the structure” but you haven’t got one. Do you tell them to use the publicly available structure or make a homology model even though you know that without your own series in the active site as a guide, they’re just guessing?
            And do you have to call a lawyer to put together a non-disclosure agreement? For which series?
            So you see the complexity of the problem? It’s not simply having a good idea and writing the program and shopping it around. That’s a lot of hard work and no one would argue that it is challenging and fun. But in pharma, that’s just one section of a complex puzzle. Pharma discovery is an iterative process. The people who are going to make money off of it in the end are the ones who can patent. But the ones who can patent have to pay for each step in the process over and over and over again before they come close to filing. And after they file, they have to hire clinical people, who are the most expensive part of the whole ordeal. Then you have to wait for the FDA to reject, er, approve you.
            If you’re lucky.
            Yes, it *could* be done by a small company but there is a reason why 80% of these ventures fail.

          • There are a lot of things where you need hefty infrastructure, usually a large company, to do the work needed to make something. That’s just life. And it’s in everyones interest for many of those things to function well. Drug development is one of those obviously. What’s happened to the pharma industry is very destructive to the country as a whole. I mean, outsourcing pharma R&D, are you frick’in serious. I think there are other things that similarly require a large organization like computer/electronics development. Luckily for me there’s an ecosystem for small developers to make cool things. I know how lucky I am, believe me.

    • If only I knew how to program…

      • Everyone should know the basics of programming anyway. 🙂

        • I know the basics of programming. That doesn’t make me a programmer.

          • Often a group needs expertise in areas other than programming, but would like a little bit of programming help too. So the basics may be all that’s necessary. Design of what and how a piece of software works is often more about the subject matter of the application for example.

    • Would it help if the government picked up the cost of healthcare or is that sooooo not an issue at this time?

      • That’s a good question. I suspect with most places that’s a smaller percentage. But it would probably be easier for the government to do however. So maybe pick up the cost of healthcare, and help with maybe 1/3 of the salary. That would work for lots of places I’d bet.

  4. I support the concept and would like to see some of my tax money going to that than to many other things.

    We could call it The PharManhattan Project. (Actually, if you or anyone thinks that name could actually be useful, feel free to go ahead and use it).

    • PharManhattan works for me.

      • Given the state of things and the upcoming patent cliff, I think something like that may be needed. Time for a healthcare system revolution that includes such an idea. Our politicians will never do it however. Now an occupy wall street like activity that’s about our broken healthcare system would be something. Unfortunately our pseudo progressive types wouldn’t do it because they’d have to admit Obamacare wasn’t the ultimate solution.

        • And they’d have to admit that pharma might be better than chewing on willow bark and other “natural”, holistic, bioidentical crunchy granola medicinal plants. {{rolling eyes}}
          And the left snickers at conservatives for being dumb about evolution.

        • Many real progressive types, and other people besides, were/are quite bitter about Obamacare. We remain bitter about how the Obamacrats maneuvered the process to pre-emptively eliminate any public option from genuine consideration. This makes us all the more bitter about how the Forced Mandate is the centerpiece of the Baucus-Obama Plan. Since Baucus was key in biasing the consideration process against any form of public option early in the process, I think Baucus should get equal billing in Baucus-Obamacare. I myself think that the Forced Mandate was the payload all along, and all the rest of it . . . all the “good things” which the Corporate Fascist Obamacrats want praise and credit for . . . were merely the delivery vehicle. The goal was to legislate Forced Mandate private insurance plans and then circle back and destroy Medicare in stages so as to deny us aging people any hope of safe-harbor from the Private Insurance Rackets upon reaching age 65. Obama’s effort to raise the medicare eligibility age to 67 is a first step to destroying medicare. He and the Corporate Fascist Democrats will also try degrading medicare, lowering payments to providers, etc. to the point where providers will boycott medicare en masse. (I think it was the expression of sentiments like that which finally got me stealth-banned at Hullabaloo . . . not that Digby has even yet admitted to banning anybody. She also hasn’t admitted to banning Sarah B. who has clearly been stealth-banned; probably for offering so many links to so many irrefutable sources that Digby wouldn’t tolerate the effective dissent from Sarah B. The Crawdaddy Holers have sometimes written about this decieftful banning going on over at Hullabaloo without any admission or statement of what gets you banned or anything. At least the Crawdaddy Holers say that any commenter is subject to comment-erasure or banning at the Crawdaddy Holers’ own whim.)

  5. ( I have a totally off-the subject question . . . . your friend who got stuck in Atlanta and wanted to know a good restaurant . . . did he/she end up finding one? Were they impressed enough to mention the name? If so, what was it?)

    • I think he found many restaurants. Let me see if there are any specific names in his text messages.

  6. The Interesting thing about the 10 grand to everybody, is that it amounts to 3 trillion… how much did Zero give to the banks and corps? 2.5 trill???

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