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When I told you Research had left NJ, I wasn’t making it up


Hoffman-LaRoche Nutley, NJ- recently shuttered.

NPR ran a recent piece on the problem of ghost towns being left in the wake of the great pharma mergers and layoffs of the last 10 years.

The facility I worked at in Bridgewater, NJ closed in 2011.  I’m not sure they were able to find renters but the MBAs seemed to have a habit of overestimating what new tenants for labs space would be willing (or able) to pay.  The lab buildings I worked in were beautiful with lots of natural light but they were never full. The facility I worked at previously in Monmouth Junction, NJ was also abandoned for awhile but I had heard that there were some plans to lease it.  Or bulldoze it.  I can’t remember which.  I stand corrected.  Google maps says the site is “closed”.  That building was smaller and more contained.  It would have been perfect for a small biotech company on the rise.  It had a state of the art animal breeding facility and room for about 400 people. More than that makes it feel too cozy.

But as I wrote back in 2011, it is difficult to get funding for a startup.  The vulture capitalists like to see most of the work done before they commit their money.  Then there is the problem of finding money for equipment (this is cheaper due to the big pharmas auctioning off all their stuff), subscriptions to journals, buying expertise for robotic HTS assays, structural

The place where I spent the best years of my life

biology, specialized analytical chemistry and ADME analysis, and every other thing that a small biotech doesn’t have in its own arsenal.  A regular Joe researcher funding his own research will probably lose his house before the year is out.  So, he and his colleagues don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on lab space, which despite its abundance, is going to be expensive.

In the meantime, Big Pharma is counting on graduate students living on subsistence wages to pick up the slack on what are now reduced government grants.  It was hard enough to be a graduate student in Chemistry before the sequester.  Now, the money is much harder to come by.  For a person who may not get a decent paying job until he or she is almost 30, the prospects are bleak.

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

You can see Paul Krugman from here!

Funny how Paul Krugman doesn’t talk about this.  He’s living in the heart of what was Big Pharma territory and the desolation is hard to ignore.

Some of the lame excuses that Big Pharma gives for pulling out of NJ is that it’s too far from the City and the kids nowadays want to be right in the middle of some hot urban action, complete with expensive tiny apartments that they will have to share with roommates until they retire.  Also, Big Pharma has relocated to the coasts to be close to Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Scripps.  That’s so they can share ideas in the areas where genomics and molecular biology are king.  But this is utter bullshit.  For one thing, if you are working in Cambridge, MA or San Francisco, you are precluded from talking about your work with anyone.  There’s no sharing going on in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.  It’s all proprietary and very hush, hush.  Your work won’t be published until the lawyers have taken out anything that’s remotely patentable.  It could be years before you can share your big breakthrough.

Plus, there is this new fangled device called the internet.  If I wanted to, I could use an online tool to order up a synthetic gene from California from the comfort of my backyard wisteria covered swing in Pittsburgh.  I can access thousands of journal articles, provided I had $33/electronic copy and could get over my impulse to strangle the ACS and Elsevier every time I had to do it.  I could attend meetings and conferences.  My work does not depend on my location.

And here’s one more reason why pulling out of NJ to go to Boston doesn’t make sense.  It’s fricking expensive.  If the MBAs were trying to save money, which is what they always claim is the reason for shuttering labs, why the hell would they relocate to some of the most expensive real estate in America??  Why not go back to the midwest where the mothballed labs are still cheap?  That’s where most of research was before the big mega mergers in the 90s brought everyone to the Northeast.  Cinncinnati, Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor all had thriving research communities before the business people decided to manage things.  Or even Pittsburgh.  This place is hopping lately, it’s urban, housing is cheap and there’s plenty of mass transit.

And this is where I think we come to the crux of the matter.  The relocation is about what the business people want.  They don’t want to be stuck in dowdy, suburban NJ with the high property taxes and they can’t think past the rust belt image of the midwest.  It’s not glamorous enough for the people who consider themselves the culture of smartness.  Smartness demands that it hang around other smart people.  Maybe if the business types rub shoulders with the supersmart MIT researchers, they won’t feel like they sold out their biology degrees to become finance wizards?  Projection of sorts?  I can only guess.

It’s also easier to jettison your workforce if you claim you HAVE to move to stay competitive.  Yep, just cut those hundreds of thousands of experienced STEM workers loose when they are in middle age and have family responsibilities.  Leave them stranded in NJ while their property values sink and they are stuck peddling themselves as consultants from one poverty stricken startup after another.

This is no way to treat the people who brought you Lipitor, Effexor and Allegra.  And, yet, this is the way it’s going.  Big Pharma sees its future as chronic illness specialists.  They will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a drug that some people can’t live without and will expect insurance companies to pay for them.  Think of it as sponge from some Nathan Brazil Well World novel. I know that a few of my friends are still making a living in companies that are focusing on orphan diseases and oncology but there’s something immoral about hooking up people to drugs you know they can’t live without with the goal of milking every dollar from them.  I realize that research is expensive but we didn’t use to be so mercenary about it.  Instead of solving the problem of out of control research costs, the new wizards of pharma finance have glommed onto cheap, dirty and unsustainable new ways to make money. Reduce your workforce to desperation, focus on the poor unfortunate chronically ill and ignore everyone else. This is the new business model.

And it is broken.

30 Responses

  1. What a shame! We’ve gone down every conceivable wrong road.
    Come to Cleveland, too, we’re on a roll.

  2. “Big Pharma sees its future as chronic illness specialists. They will charge hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for a drug that some people can’t live without and will expect insurance companies to pay for them.”
    RD: You couldn’t not have said it any better….how to fight this is the key issue,

    • I think I’ve proposed several solutions, some of which the left isn’t going to like very much but SHOULD if it really wants a functioning research sector.
      The primary problem as I see it is that the executives of these big companies are being pressured by Wall Street to meet quarterly estimates. There is focus and pressure on short term goals, not long term goals. And there are very good reasons why the biomedical industry works in the long term but not in the short term. Most of these reasons are out of our control. If you want to make money in biomedical research you need to accept those long term rate limiting steps.
      So, part of the solution is to extend patent life in exchange for price controls. Another is to limit class action lawsuits because there are no perfect drugs. Another is reform the FDA. It’s incredibly inefficient and politicized and we need a functioning and healthy FDA. Another is to fully fund the NIH grant system and take out the incentive to commercialize every discovery. Finally, get more government funding in starting up new research companies. Move the incubators back to the more affordable midwest and guarantee the researchers a living wage.
      That will get part of the way there.

      • No any different than the insurance business, driven by profits.
        Not until we are open as society -and push for- to the concept of healthcare as a social service, the interrelated needs of pharmaceutical-medical research will always be wrestling with the business corporates and their abuse. Added by our very litigating society lacking realistic sense and the eternal bureaucracy of regulators such as the FDA.

        • “Eternal bureaucracy” sounds like a two-word definition of Hell. 😈

  3. It’s funny that the posts on religious narcissism gets a s^&*load of hits while the ones on research, which in my opinion is just as important, get none at all. So, the next time I write a research post, I’m going to call it “The religious narcissist in the labs”. (Yes, there are a few.)

  4. Maybe it’s because the research posts are so devastating…. I read them and feel like, I don’t know — I don’t even know. The religious ones are interesting but don’t really matter to me (although for all I know there’s a direct correlation)

    And then there’s the Ebola thing. Where does that fit into the slow-down/halt of research?

    • It’s a fluke. The current epidemic is the result of broken government in Africa. The virus is self limiting. It can’t survive outside the body. If it can’t land on another human host, quite literally, it dies out pretty quickly.
      In this epidemic, the countries involved have been unwilling or unable to contain and quarantine.
      Normally, Ebola isn’t ever this bad and it will still remain a local event unless the virus develops some ability to hang around and transmit more efficiently than it has so far.
      Personally? I’m less worried about Ebola than some yet unknown biology hacker who had the ability to order synthetic genes from CA that he/she can infect ecoli with in the comfort of his garage lab.
      Some forms of research are expensive but cooking ecoli isn’t.

      • I hope it works like that. I can’t help but worry about the string of sloppy thoughtlessness we’ve seen lately.

      • I read that one possible way the Ebola virus could have jumped to humans is desperate people eating “bush meat”.

        This shows why, even if the rich can produce a police state and a propaganda apparatus so powerful as to guarantee that revolution will never happen, it would still serve their own best interests to share the wealth.

        Desperate people:

        (1) Have weaker immune systems, due to chronic hunger and general poor health.

        (2) Are more likely to do things which can get them infected (eating bush meat, for example).

        Once epidemics get started among the marginal members of society, they have a nasty habit of migrating to the center of society, and up the social ladder. Pathogens don’t care how rich and powerful a human is, and the secret police can’t torture microbes into submission.

        • I don’t know that they think of ‘bush meat’ as desperation food. The Cameroonians I used to work with loved the “sweet, sweet bush meat” and thought it made them more strong.

          • *sigh* Haruhi forgive me, but sometimes I think some of those countries might be better off if the European colonial empires were still running things. (Not the former Belgian Congo, of course–the Belgians were pure thieves.)

  5. I would love to be able to make a sensible comment on your research article but my only though is that we need to find a way to make our government listen to the people, not the money.
    It is going to take a major change in the way the government allocates our tax money. We are getting desperate to see our government realize that we need Research, and rebuilding our high ways, and all of our infrastructure as well as our social safety nets.

  6. The business model is broken because healing the sick is not a business. You can make a living at it. That’s different. But the activity itself can’t be a business. Just like justice can’t be a business.

    Everybody wants medicine with people at the center (especially when they personally are that person), but business is about profit. Business is not a social service agency. Again, you can make a living providing a social service. There’s plenty to do for researchers. They’re actually producing the social good. But you can’t have them working inside a profit-driven framework without wrecking everything they’re working for.

    The sooner we get our collective heads around the idea that this has to be government funded and fund it adequately, the sooner we’ll get to health care that serves people rather than profits. Fully funding NIH and making a functioning FDA would be part of that process.

    We’re a ways away even from those first steps. :sad-frustrated-angry face here!:

  7. I meant, seriously, I make a little literary joke and you wag your finger in my face?
    Maybe, it’s time for Superego to take over.
    As my sister says, we’re all laughing our way to the boneyard.

  8. All in all, is a very important and topical subject. The importance of our health as human species can make us or break us.

  9. You’re kidding, right? We’re so completely fucked from just climate change (not to mention the methane, the close to 40 self-reinforcing feedbacks that keep the climate change going faster and faster, Fukushima which, by itself, is an extinction event, the novel diseases popping up, ocean acidification and heating, Arctic ice melt, and our own stupidity added to ever worsening natural disasters) that we’ve got til about 2030 before it’s too hot to grow food and all the vegetation dies. Our species is going extinct by our own hand and taking pretty much all the other life on the planet with us. Great job humanity!

    • I think you must mistake this blog for one that denies climate change. It is not.
      But running around screaming about climate change isn’t really offering any solutions, is it? Nor is it likely to get the attention of the people who don’t want to hear about it.
      Instead of commenting in disbelief at our lack of urgency, you might want to think about the myriad steps you need to take to get people to pay attention.
      Starting at the top of YOUR pyramid of needs does nothing to alleviate the weight of the burden at the bottom of THEIR pyramid of needs.

    • What we have is a crisis crisis. Too many crises to keep up. Each crisis making another crisis worse. There is a crisis for every taste in crises. So all anyone can do is pick their personal favorite crisis (and action group/s if there is one/s) and start working on it.

      • I think I’ve done my share of covering crisis issues that are of importance to the left. But I find that those lefties who shriek loudest about climate change seem to be the least charitable about the economic conditions of their fellow Americans. So, verily I say unto you, you wl gain more allies on climate change when you’ve gotten fewer people to fret with constant anxiety about whether they can pay their monthly bills and not a second sooner.

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