One day you awake for the biggest ceremony of the year. The annual Cargo Cult Superbowl! Everyone attends. All hands are on deck and everyone is believing to the best of their faiths ability. You take to the tower, don your headset and perform the ritual you were taught. You look to the skies. You look to the Chief and the radio lady. You wait and wait and once again, no airplanes come. As dawn comes you come down from the tower to return to your hut to sleep. No cargo will be waiting for you when you wake. Just rice and berries as usual for you daily meals.
What year is a good year in the Cargo Cults? Did you almost see an airplane back in 94? When you've got a group of people who have never seen the airplanes land, you have a problem. Somehow you have got to get people who have failed and succeeded on your team. The best example I have from my career was when the large successful contract manufacturing organization banned our director and his immediate reports from participating in the process development of product. Our people had neither failed nor succeeded. They had showed up to work for years (still do) with the "fake it til you make it" philosophy. The CMO had had enough and they called us out. They exercised the option in the contract to exclude members of our team from the alliance between our two companies.
I saw myself as the young boy in the watch tower watching the empty skies. One day I came across this CMO and a few others who I believed had seen the planes and the cargo. The CMO had been in business for many decades and had made drugs for many companies. The other people I met taught classes in process development and they made sense when they spoke, unlike members of my tribe. I wanted out from under the leadership of those who have neither failed nor succeeded to learn from those who had. My tribe let me out but in a manner that would exclude me from participating with other tribes. I had had enough of everything I had done before, but I still had an interest in the biotechnology of drug manufacturing. After so many years of working in biotechnology, I finally had enough information to decide where I wanted to work.
The layoffs are the direct result of the Cargo Cult mentality. The layoffs are business as usual. The layoffs are a business decision that replaces actual changes to the role that kid up in the watch tower needs to have value. For those who think they are seeing a surge, check out this article. According to the author there had been a perceived lull in job cuts that had been moving at a "breakneck pace starting in 2011". In reality, 8,793 jobs were lost from January to August of 2013. In 2012 9,626 jobs were lost, only 9% more. When Mercks job cuts are accounted for, 2013 is going to be a worse year than 2012.
Just to randomly check a few other data points, here is an article from 2002. How about 2009? 2007? If you look hard enough you will find that only a handful of companies have succeeded at bringing a drug to the market. Those fortunate enough to have that experience have much to teach. However, they too live the perilous life where important decisions made by others can bring their employment to an end. When a good job turns south and is eventually terminated, the value of that employee is only in that employees understanding of what happened. In order for that person to go on and contribute to the improvement of the biotech industry, they must understand what went wrong and find a new position that specifically intends to mitigate the risks that ended the last position. If a person has real value, the position must extract that value.
In the history of the industry we have always had hard times. Layoffs became the norm long ago. Just as the leadership class has yet to solve the mystery of generating value from the lab, so has the laboratory class.
Recently Frederick Sanger died at the age of 95. He left behind much to study. He won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, one for his work on the structure of proteins and a second for contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids. A man such as this was certainly a member of the leadership class but he included a followership role with science as his boss. He worked in the lab! While we've created a thousand hierarchy structures, business models, six sigma black belt methodologies and restructured our laboratory working class into a dizzy group of unemployed Home Depot employees, one guy had an interesting life. From Wikipedia: