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Science Careers: Run Away, Little Children, Run Away!

Unemployed scientists at last week's BioNJ Expo at Rutgers Univerisity

Derek Lowe’s blog from inside the pharma industry, In the Pipeline, highlighted an Op/Ed piece by Josh Bloom in the New York Post yesterday titled, “America’s Vanishing Science Jobs”.  I don’t know Bloom (and this is weird because we have a past company in common.  Collegeville?  Pearl River?) but he nails the problem facing the unappreciated American scientist in the first paragraph:

The folks at Scientific American have launched “1,000 Scientists in 1,000 Days” — a program to bring together scientists, teachers and students to improve America’s “dismal” showing among wealthy countries (27th out of 29) in graduating college students with degrees in science or engineering. I’m sure they mean well — but, at least as it applies to the field of chemistry, “1,000 Unemployed Scientists Living With Their Parents at Age 35 While Working at the Gap” would be a better name.

Back in the 90’s, I thought we were going to be eclipsed by China and India as well.  Then, I realized that China, and Russia too, had let its creme de la creme emigrate to America.  America benefitted from that wave.  Graduate level classes were full of Asian students.  It was a bit intimidating.

And then they blended in and we came to realize that although they are extremely hard working, focussed and fanatically well prepared in math, there is just as much variation in talent among Asian scientists as American scientists.  That’s because to be well trained in math and science is necessary but not sufficient.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell points to an observation that to master a subject, whether it is a field of study, profession or musical instrument, and to become an expert, requires 10,000 hours of practice.  The ability to discover drugs also develops over many years of practice.  A scientist doesn’t arrive in a lab ready to find a new drug simply because he/she comes from a country whose kids rank number one in math.  Even newly minted PhDs need a few years of seasoning before they’re useful and they’re still only novices.  Gladwell is right.  It takes a good 10 years before you develop a degree of comfort in doing drug discovery after you’ve seen many different kinds of problems and have tried various approaches to solving them, lathered, rinsed, repeated, over and over again.  It is very rare to find someone who gets it the first time.  In fact, I have never met any such person.  It’s a journey for even the brightest.

It wouldn’t even be correct to say that advanced technology can speed up the process.  We’ve seen many different new technologies like high throughput screening robotics, genomics, transgenic animal models and combinatorial chemistry.  Each one of these technologies did produce results but sometimes, we are left with more data and unanswered questions.  Speeding things up created new problems to be solved and sometimes lead us down new avenues of inquiry.  All of that information has to be processed, categorized, understood.  It takes time.

So, now China and India are going to jump on the drug discovery bandwagon.  As more and more companies outsource not just the routine tasks but whole research units, we may indeed see discovery speed up and it might look miraculous.  But that would be ignoring the groundwork that was laid here in America. And it will still take time, perhaps decades, for the Chinese to catch up.   In the meantime, the people who did the gruntwork for the past couple of decades are being asked to step aside and sacrifice their careers for the good of the shareholders.  Those scientists have seen their research stop/started frequently since the 1990’s.  Mergers and acquisitions and management schemes from business administration majors and consultants have interfered with the ability of scientists to process the information coming out of this amazing era of biological breakthroughs.

It won’t be long before the executives and shareholders realize they’ve made a mistake and that new drugs *can’t* be designed like new Intel chips.  They also can’t be discovered by breaking the discovery process into neatly manageable “on-time” bits, each component made in a tedious, routine manner to be assembled at some American endpoint by a handful of designer/engineers.  Biological systems are not like cars or new high tech gadgets, and understanding those biological systems is aided by an economy of scale that is destroyed by atomization into neatly manageable “on-time” bits that can be turned on and off following the whimsies of the business cycle. Bussiness types intuitively know this right about their undergrad sophomore year when they’re forced to pick a major but they forget it by the time they graduate from Wharton.

That leaves us to tell our children that their lives are going to change.  No more vacations, piano lessons and daytrips to the city.  Get used to parents who are constantly worried about money, dental appointments that must be saved for in advance and how they are going to pay the mortgage on vastly reduced salaries.  The children of scientists see their parents, weighted down with degrees, some of the smartest people they know, deprived of the means to make a living.  The parents have heard their children ask, “What’s the point of all this work and college?  Where did it get you?”  We still make our kids study like fiends but we tell them,

Don’t go into science, there’s no economic security in it.

The Scientific American initiative is a futile one.  The places where those 1000 scientists are located have also seen the most devastation.  The scientists that have lived to see another day in smaller companies with less economic stability and longer hours know that the job they love today could be gone in a flash tomorrow when the venture capital runs out or the management decides capriciously to make a change.  We tell our kids to learn to live with less or go into finance, become a spy or study plumbing.

Don’t waste your time learning molecular biology and organic chemistry.  Resist the siren song of the lab.  Run away, run away!

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Sunday: 10,000 hours

Chesley Sullenberger, 1973

Chesley Sullenberger, 1973

Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, is about the characteristics of leaders and other success stories.  In case you didn’t know, geniuses don’t automatically rise to the top of the food chain.  In fact, quite a few end up as security guards on the midnight shift.  It is also true that you don’t need to be a genius to be a success.  If your IQ is around 120, you’re capable of doing just about anything you set your mind to.

So, if ability is not the determining factor to becoming a success at anything, what are the factors?  Gladwell identifies several including opportunity, family background, creativity, the degree to which the culture you live in is “top down” and one other teeny-tiny thing- practice.  Yep, that old adage “practice makes perfect” is absolutely true.  If you want to become an expert at anything and be able to create new things from your starting materials, you have to have a lot of practice time under your belt.  The research points to a very consistent number of hours to attain this level of mastery for any field- 10,000 hours.

This week, we’ve seen a very dramatic demonstration of that requirement in the person of Chesley Sullenberger.  Captain Sullenberger, a 1973 graduate of the Air Force Academy, former fighter pilot and US Airways pilot used all of those hours of practice and experience to glide his aircraft into the icy waters of the Hudson River after it was disabled by birdstrike.  Oh, did I mention that Sullenberger had a glider license as well?  All of the elements of success came together for Sullenberger and his crew including the cockpit training that allowed for him to get control of the aircraft from his co-pilot.  But it was Sullenberger’s years of practice, practice, practice with jets and gliders that allowed him to create and execute a water landing from a gliding AirBus.

I woke up this morning to a headline in the NYTimes that declares that the nation has faith in Barack Obama and will wait patiently while he gets his $%#@ together.  That’s great because Obama has virtually no practice time under his belt.  His whole political career has consisted of a lot of amazing opportunities and family background.  He doesn’t strike me as a creative type.  I hang out with a lot of creatives including my Brook who has a surplus.  Obama’s no creative.  He does have an uncanny knack for staging.  I’m beginning to think even the Reverend Wright debacle was carefully staged so he could deliver a speech on racism.  But choreographing a campaign is quite a different thing from running a country.  This sounds obvious but it is even more important in Obama’s case.

George Bush was allowed to get away with murder because his predecessor had left the place in tip-top shape, having had 8 years of a governorship and 8 years of a presidency to practice.  We know that Bush didn’t practice and was a lazy president.  But there was enough of a cushion built into the economy that we could ride out Bush’s presidency.  Now, that cushion is gone.  Here is when experience matters a great deal.  We could have had Hillary Clinton who was there for the 8 years of governor training, 8 years of presidential training and 8 years of senatorial training.  That would have given her.  210,240 hours of experience to fall back on.  One could argue that she wasn’t running anything for 16 of those years but we know that she wasn’t a typical first lady and she took on health care and peace in Northern Ireland while the Big Dawg was president.  So, OK, let’s take away her 8 years in Arkansas because that was not at a federal level.  That would leave her with 140,160 hours.  Let’s give her a month off for every year for vacation.  That brings us to 128,640 hours.  Let’s give her a 40 hour work week.  That brings us to 30,720 hours.  Not bad.

Now, let’s look at Obama.  We’ll exclude all of his work on the state level just as we did for Clinton.  It’s fair.  She did tons of work for Arkansas in the areas of education and children’s welfare but let’s put it aside for a moment.  He’s been a senator for 4 years.  We’ll give him a month off for vacation every year and a 40 hour week.  Yeah, he’s probably worked more than that per week during the campaign season but it normalizes with respect to Clinton.  That gives him 7,680 hours.  At this rate, it will take him a couple of years for him to know the emergency procedures.

Just sayin’.