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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

You Can't Be 20 On Sugar Mountain

...though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon.

I continue on this thread of employment, unemployment and the impact of the layoffs in the biopharma industry (Cargo Cults). There is a story here that is not being covered by any news agency. The government uses statistical analysis to tell the story they need to tell, that things aren't so bad. From my LinkedIn account however, the people I have worked with in the biotech Cargo Cults are not doing so well. Especially those over a certain age. I'm focusing on laboratory work in honor of Frederick Sanger. Some people still value laboratory experience and lament that it is now considered a "Sugar Mountain" of sorts where only the young and vulnerable need apply. Here is a comment from a post on Dr. Sangers passing on the blog In the Pipeline that sums up this sentiment :

In academia of yore, it was usual for even the most senior scientists to perform lab work. A recently-deseased colleague of mine had the privilege to work with both Sanger and Perutz. Apparently, the latter would not take on grad students who got 1st class honours degrees as undergrads becasue he belived they must have spent too much time in the library and not enough time in the lab to achieve such results. My colleague worked in the lab until he retired aged 82. Washing glassware gave him time to think he told me. 
Contrast that with the "show me a scientist who is still doing bench work at 35 and I'll show you a failure" mentality that pervades academia today. Much better to spend half your life writing grant proposals to fund others to do the work than to do it yourself I guess. Me, I'm way past 35, but still do some lab work almost every day. It's the only way for me to stay sane.
As Dr. Sanger said, "Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good  at the talking." What we are talking about here today is the thinking, doing and talking and the careers associated with this work.  

The New York Times ran an article last Sunday entitled, "Caught in Unemployment's Revolving Door" by Annie Lowrey. It begins with the story of Jenner Barrington-Ward who, at 53, has been unemployed for five years. She is soon to become forgotten. We don't learn much about her or what other factors led to her long term unemployment. She had last worked in the administration office at MIT. The story is about long term unemployment, a situation that tends to plague higher educated people who in previous generations may have been looked upon more favorably. A gap in your resume speaks louder than the words you actually write down.

According to the NYT article, we have what are known as structural and cyclical forms of unemployment. Cyclical unemployment is a temporary situation caused by a slack economy. Structural unemployment stems from a mismatch between what businesses want and what workers offer. In my last post I argued against the idea that biopharma job losses are cyclical. The losses are steady and they are unusually high, even when compared to high cyclical job losses in other industries. Our work force has been brought in to staff the endless new R&D paradigms and business models dreamed up by the managerial class. When their ideas fail, the laboratory staff tend to be the first to go. The constant hiring and firing of the laboratory staff has taken its toll.

Some people lose their jobs via uncontrollable circumstances. In good times they'll soon get a new job. In bad it will take a little longer. But long term unemployment on a resume is not seen through the lens' of good and bad times. It is simply a canary in the coal mine that sends the message that an individual is a problem employee. The "Thinking Fast" idea that pops into the hiring teams head is that the worker was bad, not the project they were working on. The "Thinking Slow" idea is that the individual works in a highly volatile industry and has little control over what his resume says about him or her as a thinking doing and talking researcher.

In biopharma, much of what begins as a promising new technology soon hits a snag. With poor tools such as RNAi and animal studies, a laboratory worker will produce less than impressive results. As new information comes in new people are hired to move the work forward. Thus what is cyclical is the nature of research. We have a history of short lived projects. Rather than working together and focusing on planning experiments using the scientific method, making all possible assumptions and anticipating negative outcomes, the leadership positions itself in the safest place possible. Careers are at stake. As one commenter said with regards to why animal studies are poor predictors for drug efficacy in humans:
Reproducibility is an issue. We can always trace this back to the low pay, no career development, no benefits, borderline abused individuals that give results they are expected to give to their PI. But that is never addressed and hand-waved away.
It certainly isn't hand waved away here at the CCS. The lack of career development and abused individuals giving only expected results is Cargo Cult 101. The argument here is that what we are facing is a structural unemployment crisis that generates a weak ineffective laboratory work force. The NYT article states that economists believe the strain of unemployment, plus the erosion of skills and loss of contacts that naturally occur, explains structural unemployment. There is also a bias against the unemployed that keeps long term unemployed from re-entering the work force. In biopharma, the laboratory work force faces all of the above, all of the time. The solution to both biopharma and their work force is to beef up the credibility of the laboratory.

Ah but I'm only dreaming again. When I was young I dreamed of living on Sugar Mountain with the barkers and the colored balloons. You can't be 20 on Sugar Mountain, though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon. When you look at Sugar Mountain everyone is young. When you look at biopharma everyone is well educated. If you look closely you will see that the people only stay for a short time however. Where do the people go? It is hard to reinvent a person who has invested their education dollars in learning about DNA and proteins. They were trained to work in the lab. We've trained them to conduct research. They need a permanent place to be, think, talk and do.

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