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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.

Unemployment Day #1

I woke up this morning to go to a Biotech recruitment fair at a local community college.  My “professional” clothes fit me nicely now after over a year of feeling like I had a target on my back and finding out I wasn’t imagining it.  My actual professional clothes are denim jeans and professional chef’s clogs.  Panty hose feels weird.

The day did not start off well.  I couldn’t find my CV folder with my neatly formatted story of my life (in .doc and .pdf format with strategically placed key words).  I needed to get new copies from the stick that has all my presentation slides on it. The bright young thing at OfficeMax couldn’t operate the printers, couldn’t figure out how to send files to them and when I told her, forget it, I’m in a hurry, I’ll just do it somewhere else, pulled the usb stick out of the computer without unmounting.  {{GASP!!  Heart stopped, face blanched}}  “What did you do??  Those files are the only ones I have.  If you screwed up my presentation stick, I’ll kill you” (not really meaning to kill her. )  She jumped up from her stool and started to yell that I was threatening her.  Jeez, do I have time for this nonsense?  Went to the Staples up the road, did it myself.  It took 5 minutes.  Let that be a lesson.  Organize your boxes.

The recruitment fair was set up for pharmaceutical workers whose jobs has been eliminated and who had been out of work since January 2010.  There were recruiters and contracting companies and odd little services.  There was advice on how to optimize your LinkedIn experience (get at least three references and *complete* the profile).  One service that I had never heard of is called Encore.  Encore sets up professionals with companies that need their services for very short term projects.  I offered my CV to the Encore rep but she told me I wasn’t old enough.  ???

This recruitment fair was aimed at older workers in the pharmaceutical industry who had been displaced.  If they qualified, they were eligible for a $5000 retraining grant.  To learn…what, exactly?  I mean, they’re already about as high tech as you can get.  They’re all very well qualified, many have PhDs, some of them wrote the “How To Do It” books and papers on pharmaceutical sciences.  These are not the mythical mortgage brokers who need to be retrained to do computer programming.  These are the chemists and biologists who wrote the first protocols on how to make new drugs. Just because the whole pharmaceutical industry has decided to follow each other off a cliff pursuing biologicals doesn’t mean these people are suddenly unskilled.  Motivated, intelligent people don’t need a lot of retraining.  They just need opportunities.  And opportunities are the things in very short supply.

What I’ve heard from my former colleagues at Wyeth who were Pfizered last year (Pfizered- what happens to you when Pfizer buys your company’s pipeline but not the people who actually discovered the blockbuster drugs), is that employers actually *want* people with 15+ years of experience.  They really need the expertise.  But when they see a CV that has that many years of experience, the potential employee is “overqualified”, which is another way of saying, too expensive.  But expertise should have some kind of value.  Look, I understand that companies are trying to cut costs as the whole industry heads over the “patent cliff”.  But if you know you need the expertise, don’t try to cut corners with your talent.  After all, most of them didn’t choose to live here in the Northeast where it’s as expensive as all get out to support a family.  Pharma relocated many of these people in the 1990’s from places like Kalamazoo and Cinncinnatti.  At that point in time, their knowledge and skills were valuable and companies needed them.  They still need them, but they don’t want to pay for it.  The Wharton grad restructuring the research unit he knows nothing about , they’ll pay for.  The borglike IT drone who’s still stuck on Windows XP, they’ll pay for.  The guy who invented modern pharmaceutical science?  Unemployable.

This is what your 10,000 hours of experience will get you in the northeast:  Your company will be bought or restructured.  You’ll be worried about layoffs in the year following the big announcement.  After that year, the company will either offer you a job, maybe in another state, or lay you off.  If you accept the job in the new location, there’s a good chance your spouse will have to a.) give up his/her job and find a new one in the new location to keep the family together   or b.) accept that the family will have to live apart for much of the week.  The employee will have to rent a small apartment, sometimes with other relocated employees and travel back to the family on the weekends.  Besides adding stress to the family unit when one parent has to do the work of two throughout much of the week, there is the burden of additional cost of maintaining two residences, not to mention the blow to the quality of life.  It reminds me of the black men in South Africa who had to leave their families behind when they went to work in the mines during the apartheid era.

Or, the employee can get hired by a contracting company who plays the middle man between the company and employee.  The contracting company takes a cut of the wages; the employee pays everything himself out of the rest . There’s no job security, no benefits, no ties between employee and company.  That’s the whole point.

This is not a good thing to do with your best and brightest.  The reason they went into science in the first place is because it’s interesting.  They like the challenge.  They like to solve hard problems.  Treating them like swappable technicians that can be reduced to performing routine tasks is wasting their talents and discouraging their children from going anywhere near a lab bench when they get older.

It’s not like I expect these companies to suddenly grow consciences and become more sympathetic towards their work force.  No, the powers that be are so far removed from their research staff that such a thing is probably unrealistic.  But it doesn’t make good business sense to get rid of so much knowledge, or beat the spirits of the talent you need so that they’re not as engaged as they should be because their connection to the company is temporary and tangential.  The unemployable biotech worker will become walking warnings to anyone who dares to entertain the notion that science is a field worth pursuing.  A mind is a terrible thing to waste.  Especially when there is 20 years of knowledge bottled up in it with no place to go.

It’s not good for the nation’s scientific infrastructure.