I went to Boston on Monday for a user group meeting for a well known application vendor in the field. It’s potentially a good place to make connections. My ideal employment situation would be doing modeling from my home and if there are companies out there who would like to work together on a secure connection so that can happen…
So, anyway, one of the presenters was a research investigator from Pfizer. First slide, “we have a position open for a modeler at Pfizer, please see me after the presentation if you’re interested”. Furtive glances and smirks rippled through the room. Ok, this is sad. There are people who really need jobs but no one wants to leave everything behind and go work for a company that won’t make any guarantees to its US workforce that it has a future in pharma. Well, you might if you’re desperate and go in knowing full well that the assignment is temporary, and you have no family or kids you need to relocate, and can find a month to month lease on an inexpensive apartment in a run down section of town.
Pfizer seems unconcerned about the damage it is doing to its reputation which leads us to believe that maybe it doesn’t think its prime directive is drug discovery research anymore.
After the presentation, we talked about what exactly Pfizer was up to in its recent attempts to acquire Astra-Zeneca. We flew through the options rapidly. Pfizer is in it for the money. It’s using Britain as a tax haven. The Swedes are pissed off because Pfizer isn’t promising to protect jobs in Sweden either, although it is much easier to Pfire US employees since we have virtually no job protections. The scenario reminds me of Boeing, threatening to pull out of Washington if the state didn’t give them more in tax breaks and the workers didn’t give back more in pension security. Then it was, pretty soon Pfizer will gobble up all of the remaining companies and it will just rename itself Pharma. Ha-ha. We’ll all know someone who was Pfired. Come to think of it, we already do.
Then the conversation turned to where else we could go. Academia is out. Soft money is too squishy right now, grants are heavily politicized and safe bets are favored over risk taking and innovation. Government is out. One modeler reported that she had recently been to the CDC to find the scientists didn’t even know the members in their own groups. No one talks to one another. And besides, the sequester has left them in a semi-permanent funk. Salaries are frozen and you never know when some Republican will get his jollies by writing a bill to throttle research or when the Democrats will let him do it. Expecting the government to get a clue and strenuously fund research seems to be a non-starter. It isn’t going to rescue us. That brought us back to the idea that private enterprise is going to have to step up and pour money into research or we’re all screwed. But we all know, having heard it repeatedly over the last 10 years, that our jobs are not to discover drugs. Noooo, our jobs are to create shareholder value, even if that means we have to sacrifice our salaries in order to make it happen.
The encouraging thing is that the geeks are finally understanding that shareholders are the only stakeholders that count.
Here’s the thing about pharma research that most people don’t get. Scientists are heavily dependent on someone else putting up the capital to make it work. Chemists and biologists don’t walk around with their own equipment. That’s because the start up costs are astronomically high and the path to a payout is uncertain. Research is also highly collaborative. Corporate labs are actually close to ideal for pharma research because if a project needs analytical support or protein production or whatever, the team members can walk down the hall to the appropriate resource and get in a queue for that resource. Having it all under one roof streamlines the process, which is already difficult enough.
In fact, I would have to say that this kind of research is the most complex that you will ever see and breaking up the process of research, as the MBAs have been gleefully doing lately in the name of shareholder value, has really devastated the work. And there’s a cultural phenomenon underlying all of this uncreative destruction by the MBA/Bonus class that reminds me of a Jane Austen novel. I’ll try to nail that down in another post but some of us are starting to wonder how it is that people who have spent a huge chunk of their lives in a lab before they get their first jobs in their thirties are treated like manual labor and have about as much economic security. That’s a bad thing for society, innovation, research and progress.
On a related note, I saw this bit on Piketty’s book, Capital, on Avedon’s blog. It’s what we have been experiencing in pharma. The question is, how do we get our mojo back without the cooperation of the people we elected to government?
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