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Heads Up, Research Professionals

Believe it or not, no one knows you exist.  Oh, some people have vague notion of your existence, but it’s on the level of how pre-packaged chicken ends up in your grocer’s meat department chiller.  Clearly, somebody shrinkwrapped the suckers but all the grody chicken shit details are sanitized for your protection.  In a similar way, prescription drugs just sort of magically appear on the pharmacy department shelves.  And they are always produced by some big, evil Big Pharma company.  {{boo, hiss, boooooo!}}  And while even *we* are disgusted by the behavior of all some of our companies’ CEOs (see below for more on this), the CEOs have about as much knowledge of how drugs are discovered as the average Joe the Plumber.  Most people (and pharma executives)do not see the years and years (and years) of hard work, and SciFinder searches and hours in the lab and repeated failures and serendipitous eureka! moments that are subsequently dashed to smithereens by a CHO cell receptor that simply refuses to cooperate or the dog liver enzyme assay that stays stubbornly stuck on an ambiguous borderline measurement.  (There, there, don’t cry.  It happens to everyone.)

But YOU are like that mythical chicken sexer at a big mysterious chicken farm.  Most people don’t see that part of the chicken making procedure.  You do not really exist in any tangible way.

This is a problem for us.  Because as you know and I know, the Research industry has been devastated by clueless CEOs who love their sales and marketing departments but see YOU as the equivalent of field hands.  You may work with your brains all the time but if you work with your hands at all, you become the hired help.  While the executive cafeterias have dozens of expertly prepared lunch choices, nutritionally balanced, full of color and flavor ,and access to a registered dietician who will customize your menu (I actually witnessed this one day), YOU will be served the equivalent of a high calorie meat and potatoes meal in your dingy cafeteria at the “labs” down the road.  Yes, you may as well be a Welsh miner grabbing a tiddy oggie on your way down the shaft from which you will eventually emerge covered in coal soot. Your parking lot consists of Dodge Caravans and Nissan Sentras.  THEIR parking lot has dozens of shiny new BMWs and Lexus SUVs that start a $50000 a pop in spite of a shockingly insufficient number of cup holders.  You wear a labcoat with the  spreading blotch of something yellow on the edge of the right pocket.  THEY wear suits.  You spent your college years in labs that were supposed to last three hours but, er, didn’t because you knocked over the titanium tetrachloride in your glove bag and couldn’t see what you were doing and somebody dumped their sodium sand in the sink (it wasn’t me).  THEIR labs consisted of how much beer they could fit into one of those yard long funnels.

You get the point but if you didn’t, here it is: They have a very misplaced view of their worth to the company, as well as an inflated conception of their own personal self worth.  They do not give a shit about you because to them, the chicken shows up shrinkwrapped.  Do you ever see them coming down to the lab to see how things are going?  Can you even imagine one of those condescendingly, snippy women from accounting or purchasing talking to you nicely as if you were a normal human being deserving of respect, breathing the solvent scented air?  No, of course not.  The bigwigs only see you as they flyover in their helicopters.  Any real on site inspection happens after you go home (You have to be finishing your work past 7pm to catch the whomp-whomp-whomp of their whirlybirds).

But what you may be surprised to find out is that the left doesn’t give a shit about you either.  I have been beating my head against a brick wall trying to get the attention of bloggers who really should know better to get the word out about how our industry has been devastated.  I have been talking to people until I am blue in the face to get them to understand how many hundreds of thousands of us have been laid off and are underemployed or working in contract positions for vastly reduced salaries and benefits.  But what do I hear back?  Silence.  The silence is deafening.  In fact, I get the distinct impression that some of the people on the left who should be extremely concerned with our labor problems think that we should be ashamed of what we do.  It is hard for me to believe that the left could be so incredibly heartless and dim about this but for some mysterious reason, the fact that you work and study hard to find actual cures for people is a shameful thing.  They have this “holier than thou” idea of what constitutes an honorable profession and we ain’t it. These people on the left think that because you work for the assholes up the street (or you have worked for them), that you are responsible for the increasingly boneheaded and greedy decisions they make.  They don’t understand that you have kids and mortgages and retirements of your own and that drugs come shrinkwrapped only after you’ve beaten your head against a wall for half a decade before you pass it along to the clinical people.

I thought 2008 was bad.  This is worse.  The level of concern they have for you is truly reprehensible.  Not only that but I have actually spoken to many average Joes who seem to think that STEM workers’ job prospects are unlimited.  Yes, I know, it’s incredible.  They think that the world is our oyster.  We can just breeze into any lab in the country and demand a job for a high salary.  It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.  The news media has swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker once again.  Oh, it will sink in eventually when the number of students who want to get a job in chemistry dwindles to zero because you won’t be able to convince a 20 year old to study organic chemistry, molecular biology, calculus and linear algebra for four years to wind up making $12/hour with no bennies and be happy they’ve got that.  You would think that students who are smart enough to study STEM majors will be smart enough to figure out that there’s no living wage in it anymore.  I’m not sure that the politicians and business people pushing the “We need more STEM workers!” line have figured it out yet.  But by that time, your career will be ruined and you will have moved on to reupholstering flea market furniture for a living or teaching the chemistry you could do in your sleep to class of suburban brats.  *Your* dream job of bliss in a lab discovering the wonders of nature are over.

So, do not expect anyone else to get the word out that you are in as much trouble as any other laid off worker in the country.  Nobody knows you exist.  You will have to make yourselves visible.  That means talking to strangers on a train or going to an occupation or marching in the street with your labcoat on.  That’s what it will take.  The message *is* finally trickling out in dribs and drabs.  My face to face conversations have been quite successful.  Once people understand what is happening, they are generally quite alarmed and sympathetic.  And in the end, this is not harder than getting up in front a bunch of cocky assholes you work with to explain in 30 minutes what ground breaking work you have been doing for the last six months.

As it happens, there is a march in NY City this afternoon.  Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you.  I’ve done several marches already and it’s fun.  But to make our point, we need as many people in labcoats to go as possible.  If you can’t make this one, plan to attend another one.  We are the 99% too, fergawdsakes.  We don’t make anywhere near the salaries of the 1%.  We don’t live off our investments and once they kick us out of the system, it’s bloody hard to get back in.  So, get out there and show them where those chickens come from.


On a related note, I followed a link from Derek Lowe’s blog In the Pipeline (make a note of it, left blogosphere) about the Nance Trophy nominations for the worst Biotech CEO of 2011.  There are several worthy nominees but my favorite has to be this guy:

Gregory Divis Jr., K-V Pharmaceutical

Divis wrote the CEO manual this year on how to screw up a new drug launch in every conceivable way. His was a performance of idiocy on a grand scale that may never be matched. Even Dendreon’s Gold looks like a drug-marketing superstar next to Divis.

The drug launch Divis botched was Makena, an injectable form of the hormone progesterone used to reduce the risk of premature birth. For years, doctors have been able to prescribe the same drug made by compounding pharmacies, costing just $10 to $20 per injection. K-V priced Makena at $1,500 per injection.

K-V also claimed market exclusivity for Makena because the drug was granted orphan status by FDA, so the company’s lawyers threatened to sue any compounding pharmacy that dared continue to manufacture the cheaper version.

Divis’ aggressive tactics backfired big time. Doctors got mad, worried that their patients would no longer be able to afford the medicine they needed. The March of Dimes accused K-V of profiteering at the expense of at-risk pregnant women. The FDA questioned the company’s tactics. Politicians blasted K-V and called for investigations into the company’s marketing practices.

Needless to say, the Makena launched bombed. K-V was forced to backtrack and cut the drug’s price, but even that conciliatory gesture was met with skepticism and scorn.

Friends, that is unmitigated shamelessness in all of its glory.  It’s hard to top it.  Which bright, young Wharton graduate thought of acquiring a generic drug at $10 per dose and remarketing it for $1500 per dose?  Those are the kind of people who attend Obama fundraisers because that kind of pricing strategy takes a certain kind of audacity. That takes a coldblooded cost-benefit analysis of how much people would be willing to pay to keep their babies out of the neonatal ICU.
Karma is a bitch.  It turns out that women and their doctors would find perhaps less effective and riskier alternatives than pay $1500 a pop for a $10 a dose drug.  But it’s not just the patients and their children who will suffer.  Nooooo, now whatever research staff K-V actually has, will feel the effects of the catastrophic failure of the bizness wunderkind.  This is the pattern in Big Pharma.  Someone makes a bad acquisition, puts all of their money on a drug that doesn’t get approval while ignoring every other project, or invests in some “get rich quick” promising but undeveloped technology in Massachusetts hoping for money for nothing and their chicks for free.  And when it all falls apart, the labrats get the ax in order to maintain “shareholder value”.  Typical.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to get more cynical and greedy than K-V.  My vote goes to Gregory Divis Jr.


Lipitor went off patent yesterday.  Good luck to all of the labrats working at Pfizer.  I mean, all of the ones that are left.  That weren’t laid off when Wyeth was bought by Pfizer.  Which were every single one of my friends and former colleagues.  {{sigh}}

Anyway, good luck to you all.  I see that the share price gapped up this morning.  But as you know, they’ll use any excuse when the time comes.  Hang in there.