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Once upon a time…

Merck chemists go into exile

Once upon a time in New Jersey about 20 years ago, there was a company called Merck that everyone I knew wanted to work for.  The streets of Rahway were paved with gold.  We jokingly referred to our own company as a training facility for Merck and Bristol Myers.  The best of the best worked there for two years and then went to Merck.

At local conferences, the Merck people showed up in a pack, smug, condescending, and cast an otherworldly pool of light around them.  THEY wrote their own proprietary modeling software.  Even as late as two years ago, when Pharmageddon got its groove on, there was something magical about Merck people.  They were like fading elves.

Alas, all good fairy tales come to an end and so it was with Merck this week where the rumor is that medicinal chemistry, that is the research part that makes your drugs from scratch, oh best beloveds, has been decimated at Merck.  The rest of the story at Merck is unclear at this moment.  We’re still trying to piece together whether Merck is going to outsource their synthesis to poorly paid foreign PhDs or whether management, who hasn’t synthesized anything but performance standards and political fantasy baseball for years, is going to don their too tight lab coats and nitrile gloves and go back to the lab.  That should be interesting.

Once upon a time, the US had world class public research.  Then the big companies decided they didn’t want to do research anymore and they would pharm out their research to academic labs.  And they wrote policies about how this would be accomplished and the politicians said it was good because many of them didn’t know what the heck they were voting for.  And then the Republicans decided to “drown government in a bathtub” and because they are like Godzillas in Tokyo, they were pretty indiscriminate about what they were knocking down.  It turns out that the NIH keeps getting hit pretty hard and grants are harder and harder to come by with higher and higher bars to jump over and endless hours slaving over documents.  That time could be used to invent new techniques but research is very expensive and someone has to pay for it.  So the academic scientist spends much of his or her time begging to keep the reactions going and the lab rats paid.

Recently, during the government shutdown, Francis Collins, the head of the NIH, said this about the sequester and the tragedy of what is happening to this country’s life sciences infrastructure:

The sequester hitting as it did in the middle of the year meant that about 640 grants that would have been supported and highly regarded by peer review are now not going to receive funds. And those ideas are not going to happen. And breakthroughs that they might have represented will not occur. We will not know what we’ve missed because it’s gone. Imagine 640 bright, motivated scientists on the brink of doing something powerful that could have changed the way in which we diagnose, treat, and cure cancer or influenza or diabetes or some rare disease that desperately needs an answer; it’s just not going happen. I would argue with anybody who says that’s a minor consequence. It’s not; it’s a major negative outcome and a tragedy for what had been the world’s most successful search-engine in biomedicine.

Other countries, meanwhile, have read our play book and see their future in trying to do what we used to do. As we seem to be backing away, they are increasing their support. And if people care about American leadership, they should be worried.

Unless something (it’s called C-O-N-G-R-E-S-S) stops the next set of cuts in the sequester, the problem is going to get a lot worse.

I don’t see a happily ever after ending to the story right at this minute but, you know, I’m a Tolkienist so I’m not ready to give up hope yet. The situation at the present time is this. We have private industry pulling out of research because the shareholders are like opium addicts who expect bigger and bigger quarterly hits.  Long term investment doesn’t play nicely in the sandbox with an “ownership society” where everyone and their grandma is expected to put their savings into mutual funds that analysts and managers can gamble with.  And we have idiots like Rush Limbaugh who yee-haw that the sequester is the best thing since sliced bread because liberals are sucking on it.  I wouldn’t wish a Charlotte Corday situation on my worst enemy but I wouldn’t think twice about wishing a drug resistant version of Fournier’s Gangrene on Rush Limbaugh.

In the meantime, some of us still can’t quit science.  After two years in the desert, I have to pinch myself because I now have access to all the journal articles I can eat.  I’m afraid to click on the “Full Journal Article” button sometimes.  It’s almost not real, like ruby slippers.  {{Oh, wow, oh, wow!}}  But it’s almost cruel too because it’s so uncertain these days.   What is granted can so easily be taken away, like coaches that turn into pumpkins at midnight.  Sometimes, I think I might have been better off if I’d taken my academic advisor’s advice and studied law.  Then I think I’d rather eat glass than study torts.

So, science, yeah.  You can barely make a living at it anymore and yet can’t quit the habit. The best I can do at this point is try not to frighten the new, untested, warriors in training that there be dragons out there and to pass on what a wizard once told me, “Don’t let anybody steal your bliss.”