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Friday Science Horror Story

The title was suggested by Lambert at Corrente.  I’ll try to keep this short and sweet.

The site, Chemjobber, reported back in January 2012 that the unemployment rate among chemists was at 6.1%.  That’s much higher than the BLS rate from a year earlier when the BLS said it was about half that.  But it’s still nowhere near what we on the ground are witnessing.  I guess a better question would be how many chemists are practicing chemists.  From what I’m seeing, not very many.  The former colleague I met in the grocery store yesterday told me that the biotech my old company bought laid off all but 4 of the chemists they had.  That’s right.  Medium sized biotech laid off all but *4* chemists.

Chemjobber also has some less than encouraging words for the future of chemistry in this country from a candidate for the presidency of the American Chemical Society (ACS), Dr. Dennis Chamot:

Nevertheless, a global manufacturing enterprise with increasing international competition is here to stay. Unfortunately for chemical professionals, it’s not just shop-floor manufacturing and assembly jobs that have moved from the U.S. to Asia and other areas; in recent years the movement has included upper-level, sophisticated work such as chemical research, drug discovery, process design and development, and various levels of management. In addition, domestic capabilities have increased enormously in developing countries such as China, India, and Brazil, as has their output of homegrown scientists and engineers.

What does all of this say about employment opportunities for U.S. chemists? Well, we are probably producing too many chemists for the traditional academic and industrial research labor market, at least for the foreseeable future. To come to any other conclusion would be indulging in empty rhetoric. Note that I did not say we are producing too many graduates with chemistry degrees—more on that later—but we need to be realistic…

[snip] Growth in the U.S. will not be fast enough to make up for all of the lost positions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries over the past few years, in part because many of these losses have not been solely determined by economic decline. Rather, there have been strategic shifts to place work in other countries, and there is no reason to expect those decisions to be reversed.

The keys for many chemical professionals will have to be imagination and flexibility. I am a firm believer in the need for all citizens in modern technological societies to have a strong grounding in science and math, so I would never discourage anyone from pursuing a chemistry degree. What one thinks about doing with that background, though, should include much more than just scientific research. Chemists develop lots of skills, and those skills can be applied in medicine, high school teaching, forensics, science writing, legislative work, policy analysis, quality assurance, regulatory support, and more—much more than just R&D in universities or industry.

Depressing.  We really love science but we won’t be doing it for a living anymore.

One other thing my former colleague told me was that upper management is now starting to pressure the remaining scientists to cut back on the amount of research they do.  She found this puzzling.  If you are in the research business, it’s going to take research to do it.  There’s no way to predict how many experiments are needed in advance so they can be entered in the spreadsheet in preparation for the next quarter’s numbers.  If costs are driving the move to China and the massive layoffs in America, then I will reiterate my prediction that drugs will not be discovered in either of those two places.  Research needs time, stability and continuity.  It takes as long as it takes and the cells are going to do what they’re going to do.  Any financial analyst who tells you otherwise has probably got a bridge to sell you too.

I’m placing my bets on western Europe where the government has an interest in maintaining the scientific infrastructure and where workplace protections are strong.  Those two factors lead to stability and continuity of research.

The unemployment rate among chemists is not due to structural changes or globalization.  As I have said before, there are so many discoveries in biology right now that there is more than enough work for every scientist in the world to be fully occupied and overwhelmed with work for the rest of his or her life.  The unemployment rate is the result of a calculated but naive set of decisions on the part of management and negligence on the part of our government.

A Pleasure in Work

The late John Huston once said, “Choose your career as you would choose your spouse- for love and money.”

The money part has been dogging us for a couple of decades.  We’re so worried all of the time over whether we can pay the bills that we tend to forget about the love of work.  Your job is a place where you spend 1/3 or more of your day.  You should enjoy it, look forward to going to work in the morning, be excited about solving new problems, deliver service to your customers to make their lives a little better, put quality into craftsmanship.

I consider myself very lucky to have a job I love.  Recently, it has gotten much more interesting and I look forward to going to work each day to collaborate.  This is a serendipitous revelation for me and makes me realize that learning new things can keep your mind flexible and young. For people like me who have wanted to do science since they were children, to have a place to go to discover the wonder and delight of nature is a thing divinely to be thankful for.

So, I was deeply saddened to see the following labor statistics:

Pharma Layoffs per Month, 2010

Month Layoffs
January 8,170
February 17,687
March 308
April 1,049
May 6,943
June 830
July 2,023
August 255
September 6,069
TOTAL 43,334

Even more disturbing is what the layoff picture in R&D looks like over the past two years:

Industry 2010 2009
Government/Non-Profit 123,469 109,433
Pharmaceutical 43,334 52,683
Retail 31,246 88,352
Computer 22,609 61,578
Telecommunications 22,609 53,145

Source: Challenger, Gray and Christmas

Regardless of how you may feel about Big Pharma, the loss of almost 100,000 jobs in the past year should set off alarm bells.  Although a number of the layoffs have been related to reduction in pharmaceutical sales staff, an increasing number have been to scientific staff, specifically medicinal chemists, whose jobs are going to China and India, possibly permanently.   Other layoffs in R&D are a consequence of mergers and acquisitions where salaries of scientists, frequently located in very high cost of living states, are considered a drag on the bottom line at a time when patents are expiring and new drugs can’t be approved by the FDA.

That’s thousands of well trained, dedicated scientists whose knowledge base is gone from the American workplace landscape.  It is destruction of American scientific infrastructure on an unprecedented scale.  But more than that, it is the loss of eager minds with almost childlike enthusiasm for science that will doom us as the greatest nation on earth.  In order to keep discovering new breakthroughs in physics, biology, chemistry and medicine, we need a place to go and the means to keep a roof over our heads.  Even scientists have base level caloric requirements and families and children.

I hope that lawmakers  and businessmen wake up before it’s too late.  There’s more to life than making obscene gobs of money.

To close out this post, here’s a video of crystallographers from the University of Michigan riding tricycles around the Advance Photon Source Syncrotron at the Argonne National Labs.  May we all stay forever young, as learners, employees and American citizens.

Renewal of Research Tax Credit: What’s that you say, Lassie? The barn door’s open and the horse is gone?!

Today, the New York Times is reporting that Obama is planning to pitch making the Research Tax Credit permanent:

As part of his pre-election push to spur the slumping economy and his party, President Obama this week will ask Congress to increase and permanently extend a popular but costly tax credit for businesses’ research expenses, and to pay for it by closing other corporate tax breaks, according to administration officials.

Mr. Obama is planning to outline the $100 billion proposal on Wednesday in a speech in Cleveland on the economy. The White House chose the venue partly to draw a contrast with a recent economic address there by Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader who would probably become House speaker should his party win a majority in November.

I had no idea there was a tax credit for research or that it had expired in 2009.  I thought the reason that all my friends and colleagues were getting the ax was because the guys with executive hair were following each other like lemmings to Massachusetts to roam the halls of MIT in search of “get-rich-quick!” schemes. (This American Life, Million Dollar Idea, Act One, Going Up!)

But now I see it’s really because our executive in chief was so busy accepting Nobel Prizes prematurely for work his Secretary of State is actually doing that the news that scientists with technical expertise and the right kind of training for the 21st century were losing their jobs just kinda flew under the radar.

And now that we’ve *almost* lost a generation of chemists to Chindia, with the limit approaching minus infinity that those jobs are ever coming back, NOW Obama decides to renew the tax credit.  I don’t know how it’s all going to be put back together now that it’s been torn apart.  It takes years of experience to understand the nature of our work.  There are no shortcuts for good science.  But those years have been interrupted constantly by mergers and acquisitions and consultants and Fear, Uncertainty and Dread and the expiration of a $100 billion tax credit that would have multiplied itself several times over in the hands of salaried scientists.

It’s better than nothing but it doesn’t replace a deep and abiding committment to real innovation and research.

Which we don’t have.

Hmmm, maybe the Democrats are realizing that they need all of those newly emancipated R&D wage slaves after all…