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Why not put the unemployed geeks on the government payroll?

Brad DeLong says give everyone $10,000.  Just give it to them.  And Atrios says why not put us on the fed payroll?

Why not put us on the government payroll?

I’ve been making that proposal for months now, especially for laid off pharmaceutical workers.  There are thousands of us.  Pfizer alone laid off almost the entire research personnel of Wyeth Research in one fell swoop after they merged in 2008.  There are a lot of overeducated, unemployed geeks out there who need work.  And it turns out that pharmaceutical companies didn’t do themselves any favors by merging the pants off of each other.  The “patent cliff” is looming, some companies are already sliding over and the years of relentless merging, followed by restructuring has ruined their research units.  It’s not going to get better for a long time.  Couple that with the therapeutic areas that pharma thinks are too expensive and you have a medicinal catastrophe coming up with antibiotics, reproductive health and central nervous system drugs.

So, why not buy up some mothballed labs (there are a $^&*load here in New Jersey), and recruit from the local talent pool?  Get some equipment at auction, pay these people a decent salary (in NJ, you need to make more than a post doc or people will faint from hunger over their hotplates) and let it go.  See what happens.  There will have to be some precautions taken.  For example, for real discovery to take place, there has to be a firewall between research and the business office.  That doesn’t mean that there should be no accountability but it’s better if the MBAs are not allowed to meddle.  No more restructuring.

Anthony Nicholls, the founder of Openeye, a developer of computational chemisty applications, says that big business has forgotten the value of play in discovery.  In his last Ant Rant called Curing Pharma (1) Avoiding Hype Based Science, he discussed the trends that pharma talked itself into.  Ant calls them Hype, I call them get-rich-quick schemes that management’s constant thirst for ever increasing quarterly profits demanded from research heads.  Some of these schemes weren’t ready for prime time.  It’s not that they had no value.  It’s just that to really make use of the technology, you have to be able to play with it and explore it to see what it does and what it can be made to do.  Ant writes:

The only sure way to get to the other side of Hype Hill, to get to the real utility, is to play. You have to be prepared to let talented people goof around, sometimes with substantial budgets, and develop expertise. A couple of examples from outside our industry: Ray Dolby, who founded the eponymous Dolby Labs in 1976. He engendered a culture of experimentation that has had few parallels. His engineers could buy any equipment they liked, as long as it was less than a couple of hundred thousand dollars! Today Ray is worth $2.7 billion and his company has an enduring reputation for innovation as well as profits. Or consider when the British tried to interest the American armed forces in the Harrier JumpJet. After a few flights the American test pilots began in-flight manipulations of the adjustable thrusters that were only supposed to be horizontal in flight and vertical in takeoff, risking expensive structural failure but learning that the plane’s real value was maneuverability. It helps having “management” willing to buy you new toys if you break the old ones!

Play is not cheap: people playing means people not contributing to the apparent bottom line. Tati’s great Play Time, in the end, did not make money—it’s a risky business, movies and drugs. But if you want to innovate, to avoid the pitfalls of hype, you have to commit to play time—invest in constructing a climate of curiosity and experimentation. Let real science take root. And stick with it.

Such a government proposition would be very risky in this political and social environment.  But I think Ant has a good point.  It is very hard to be creative when you’re constantly under stress and where the management thinks you are a drag on the bottom line, therefore you must be miserable in your job.  Having fun at your job shouldn’t be considered a moral hazard.  The government could potentially strike gold by giving unemployed geeks some money and a lab and telling them to go play.  And just think, no marketing and advertising departments.  No executives competing for the biggest bonus.  No constant restructuring.  Down the road a few years, you get your drug candidates and the patents that now belong to everyone.  And a devastated state like New Jersey has productive overeducated geeks once again contributing to the state treasury while simultaneously redistributing our wealth to Alabama.

It’s just so crazy it might work!

One thing that probably *won’t* work is the idea that we are all going to become entrepreneurs without government intervention.  Maybe there are other industries where entrepreneurship is feasible but it’s not going to happen in the biotech field where the equipment, reagents and start-up costs are enormous and many moving parts are required to get the ball rolling.  In Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men, there was a suggestion after talking to a Swedish official about the Swedish economic meltdown that eventually, the people who were laid off would start their own businesses.  But we’re not Sweden.  Our safety net is collapsing and the money for a small garage biotech just isn’t there.  We need a big, integrated lab where people get their questions answered by popping down the hall to ask the resident expert.  So, if Obama administration officials are waiting for a thousand points of biotech light in NJ, they can stop holding their breaths.  What we need is for the government to employ us.

As for the value of play, here’s a couple of videos to mull over.  Remember the Finnish Baby Boxes?  A consortium called TUPA has designed a new type of baby box for Kela, the Finnish health ministry.  The layette (complete with condoms and lube) would come in the TUPA box instead of a cardboard box.  The first box shows what the TUPA box is good for (cradle, table, chairs, toybox, layette delivery box) and the second perfectly illustrates Ant’s point about the value of play.

Play your way to a new design: