Monday, June 27, 2011

How government is responsible for unemployment of scientists

Josh Bloom, the director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council of Science and health, has a depressing column about the growing unemployment problems for scientists. And sadly, our own government is responsible for much of the problem.
After earning my PhD, in chemistry, I worked in drug-discovery research for more than 20 years. Aside from being a fascinating profession, it was pretty secure -- until the last decade. Then it became anything but.

Why the change? Well, it costs about $1 billion to bring a new drug to market. Blockbuster drugs that bring in multiple billions in profits, such as Lipitor, are needed to support the R&D costs of all other drugs -- ones that don't pan out, and ones that just can't help enough people to justify the investment before the patent expires. And the patents of almost all current blockbusters are expiring about now, cutting drug companies' revenues drastically.

Adding to the problem is the Food and Drug Administration, which has become overly restrictive and risk-averse, has made it very difficult (and even more expensive) for companies to bring replacement drugs to market.

To trim expenses, companies began to outsource research to India and China. It started as a trickle, but soon became a tsunami, leaving many thousands of highly intelligent and well-trained professionals with nothing to do -- a shameful waste of talent.

My colleagues and I at Wyeth watched helplessly as one company after another shed employees in huge numbers -- 300,000 since 2000. When Pfizer -- facing the looming expiration of its Lipitor patent and a poor research pipeline -- bought Wyeth for its portfolio of products in 2009, it cut about 25,000 jobs, with more to come.

Most of the combined company's research sites have either closed or are in the process of doing so. Before long, the world's largest pharmaceutical company will be conducting very little research in the US.
Think of this. It used to be that science was a sure field for students to pursue if they wanted to be able to find a job. When my students come and proudly tell me that they're going to be history majors, part of my heart sinks for their future employment prospects. I used to have confidence that at least the kids who lean towards science would have secure futures. But this news is depressing indeed.

It used to be that these students could at least fall back on that hardy perennial stopgap and become teachers. But so many communities have hiring freezes because of their budget woes. Bloom recommends that students stop going into science fields since there won't be jobs for them. I just don't know which field to recommend. It's all so very depressing.