Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Survival of the...?

Less than a month after closing its merger with Wyeth, Pfizer announced its latest restructuring plan yesterday. This involves establishing five central R&D sites, 4 in the US and 1 in the UK. Details on the restructuring are slim, but it is reminiscent of the current GSK model.

Also not discussed in the press release: How many scientists will be losing their jobs. Given that Pfizer will be reducing R&D ops at 3 sites, consolidating its R&D sites in Connecticut, and completely shutting down R&D ops at several other sites, the news ain't gonna be good. This follows on news last week that Johnson and Johnson could be cutting up to 8000 jobs. No one seems to know what sort of layoff numbers will be emerging from the Merck/Schering-Plough merger.

Unfortunately this is part of the life cycle of big pharma. They assimilate other companies and then the pruning begins. I don't think this is really anything new. Just ask someone working for Monsanto 15 years ago... which became Pharmacia... which was acquired by Pfizer. There are many other examples. I don't know how numbers laid off in recent years compare with mergers of previous decades (yes, I'm a lazy blogger and have not consulted Wikipedia on this), but mergers and layoffs are nothing new (just like the valleys in NIH/NSF funding are nothing new).

Perhaps this is why I was struck by this comment on Derek Lowe's* post on the subject:
I am Synthetic Organic chemist about to graduate from a reputable group. I am so frustrated with these pharma layoffs and thinking to go to academics. So what do you guys think, is academic job is better in present context?
Of course, one has to wonder what he (or she) means by an 'academic job'.

If he means associate professor position, as interpreted by commenter OrgChemRedundant, then my answer would be 'HELL NO!'. You don't, or at least in my mind shouldn't, pursue that career path as a backup plan. Need I really explain why?

If he means working as a bench chemist in someone's lab, then it's worth considering. Some university departments/institutes have been investing heavily in organic chemists, setting up what I can best describe as mini-biotech groups within academia. These entities utilize chemists to synthesize hits from high-throughput screens, compounds for groups without synthetic capacities, problematic syntheses, etc. To some extent, you're still at the mercy of the grant cycles, but you may be more insulated from the economic swings. You might also be making less money than you would in pharma.

This also highlights a previous discussion we've had here: There are options outside of academia and big pharma. There are those companies that we buy all our solvents and chemicals from. There are many smaller companies, like Cayman Chemical and Santa Cruz Biotechnology, that specialize in classes of compounds or targets for bio-related research. There are smaller companies that big pharma is outsources some of their synthesis to.

If you really want to go the pharma route, whatever the reason, here is a piece of advice that I heard during a talk by an 'old' chemist at Merck. He had been at the company for 20 or 30 years and, over those years, had worked on one particular biological target multiple times. The project was tabled, and almost killed completely, multiple times, mainly because drugs against the target did not appropriately treat the indications they were developed for. Ultimately he had the satisfaction of seeing a drug make it to the market that truly changed lives, one case he witnessed personally. By that point, he was a division head, but the pride and satisfaction was clear. He was trained as an organic synthetic chemist, but one message he had for his audience was this: Even in pharma, simply being a synthetic chemist is not enough; you have to learn and understand at least some of the biology and physiology of the system you're working on.

Honestly, we could turn this into a fill-in-the-blank statement. Science--at the very least, chemical and biological sciences--has changed. For most of us, we can no longer pick a small niche and just stay there, speaking only with our niche-mates. There's a reason multi-/inter-disciplinary training has taken off--and it's not just because of NIH investment in such training programs. It's because we can no longer just be a(n): enzymologist, molecular biologist, organic chemist... As grad students, we may train to become one of these things, but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't learn other things. We don't have to become experts in every other field, and the truth is, we can't. However, we can pay attention to what's going on in other fields, to understand the big questions that other scientists are studying, to learn what challenges other labs are facing. That's the way we will make progress. And that's the way we will (professionally) survive.

* Derek Lowe's blog In the Pipeline is an excellent read if you're interested in drug discovery or what's going on in the pharma industry.

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