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CROs, Temp Work and the future

These two reports go together. The first is from WRAL in North Carolina reporting on the research cuts at Glaxo Smith Kline in RTP, North Carolina. Says a company spokesperson:

“The aim of this program is to improve performance by taking unnecessary complexity out of our operations and establish a smaller, more focused, organization, operating at lower costs, that supports our future portfolio,” GSK spokeswoman Mary Rhyne said. “Each business unit is currently deciding how to respond to this challenge. When we do have proposals, we will first share those with our employees.”

Followed by:

Jobs affected are in the following categories:

  • Chemist
  • Engineer
  • Biologist
  • Clinical development scientist
  • Statistician
  • Other managerial, technical and support roles

Cuts “are not being made across the board but are strategic,” Rhyne added.

However, hundreds of affected workers could quickly find jobs at life science research firm Parexel, which has an office in Durham. GSK signed a letter of intent which would allow up to 450 workers work in a GSK-focused business unit at Parexel.

The second was found at Naked Capitalism. It’s a report on the nature of temp work and how it erodes the skills of the workers who have been forced into temporary contract work. The bottom line is that it is bad for your cognitive health. Temp workers do not develop the necessary skills to become experts in their field because they never last long enough to gain the experience and form the neural memories that allow them to extrapolate from their assigned roles.

Now, I’m sure that the people at Glaxo who made the decision to streamline and de-complexify their research units to save money have never actually done drug discovery work because the whole enterprise is very complex. Sometimes, a discovery effort gets more complex as you go along. The people who remain after their colleagues have been shunted off to a CRO with a poorer benefits plan and temp contracts, will have to spend more of their time negotiating with competitive outside vendors to get the resources they need to do the research work. That means more time finding the contractors, writing up secrecy agreements, asking for money from the MBAs to hire the contractors and preparing the projects to be offloaded to them. Before the layoffs, they might have walked down the hall to submit their sample to the queue or talked to a chemist about the next steps in hitting a specific cluster of amino acids in the binding site. Now, they’re going to have to arrange all of that stuff offsite. Instead of doing science, they’ll be doing paperwork.

Note that this does not in any significant way reduce complexity. The complexity is inherent in the endeavor. We’re not talking about creating a new Facebook or Amazon. We’re talking about messing with cells and feedback and cross talk and reactions that yield tiny amounts of product and proteins that don’t fold right or won’t crystallize. Drug discovery is very, very difficult. It can still seem like an art than a science because there are still a lot of unknown unknowns. It’s not ever going to be like writing code.

Meanwhile, the poor researchers shuffled off to the CRO are now faced with a problem that may be as important as how long they’re going to get paid.  That is, have their years of education and experience resulted in nothing more than a dead end job where they will be treated as “just in time” workers who manufacture pieces parts of a project without any reference to those projects? There may be new restrictions on access to information. They may not be invited to team meetings. Their input will no longer be required. They will have the same status as factory workers, churning out compounds or proteins or analysis as directed from some external person who used to be their colleague. Thinking outside the box will no longer be required. All connections between the product and the project will be severed.

How long will it take before we have reduced their cognitive skills to irrelevancy?

By the way, ebola, drug resistant bacteria and schizophrenia are still out there.

One other post also comes from Naked Capitalism. It’s a mini-rant from Richard Wolff about how immoral it is for companies to offshore work and the havoc it has caused in American cities because wages have stagnated or fallen. He says there ought to be a law that prohibits companies from doing that, just like we have labor laws to prevent 4 and 5 year olds from working in factories.

You know, I get his point and understand that Germany and even France has stood up for its work force during this horrible recession (that’s looking more and more like a depression from where I sit). I find it remarkable that there was no one in our government who stood up for us when the pharmaceutical companies started to slash through the R&D units like a chainsaw homocidal maniac. But I don’t think Wolff’s suggestions are going to work. I think the corporate overlords would simply laugh at them.

What I think would work extremely well to curb the excesses of the finance and corporate unholy alliance is to eliminate the 401K system for the vast majority of workers. Because right now, the retirement savings of millions of working Americans is flowing into the system that has to turn around and gamble that money to return some of those earnings to the donors. There’s a lot to be skimmed and a lot more incentive to take risks both for the personal gain of the bonus class and in order to show some kind of return on investment. That in turn leads to excessive profit seeking, risk taking and layoffs.

So, the best thing that could happen to this country is a return to a defined pension plan and I will vote for the presidential candidate who proposes one along with the gradual elimination of the 401K.