Thursday, August 18, 2016

This Craig Lindsley op-ed is worth reading, and worth some skepticism

"We can ill afford another Klendathu, and/or the death of basic science."**
credit: wikia
Via Tehshik Yoon's Twitter feed, an interesting op-ed by Professor Craig Lindsley in ACS Chemical Neuroscience on the apparent favoring of translational science over basic science. I take issue with the opening quote from Genentech's Dr. Wendy Young: 
“The pharma and biotech industry has heavily relied on academia to train the next generation of synthetic chemists. Without duly trained synthetic ‘jocks’, our drug discovery efforts and innovation in the United States will dwindle. Without question, innovation has been a core strength of the United States, and this is due to the training in deep basic science.”
Surely there is no other reason for drug discovery efforts in the United States to dwindle. 

(I am in agreement with Dr. Young (and the quotes from Professors Baran, Corey and Buchwald) that academia provides the raw material for industrial drug discoverers i.e. new Ph.D.s in organic chemistry. I don't see that decreasing any time soon, but perhaps I am wrong - only time will tell.) 

I should lay out my priors here and say that I agree with Professor Lindsley's basic point: "We can ill afford the death of basic science." The overall flattening of NIH funding is not A Good Thing in the long run.* Also, I prefer that the federal government bias its funding towards basic science, as opposed to "translational research." The United States has a long history of reaping vast rewards from studying basic science, and it's not clear to me that translational research has nearly the same track record. 

But here's what I want to know, and what I feel is missing from Professor Lindsley's op-ed: what are the numbers surrounding federal academic funding of organic chemistry? Is there evidence that " the last 10 years that research funding for basic organic chemistry and/or molecular pharmacology is in rapid decline"? Also, Professor Baran says that the decrease is disproportional. I believe the former, and I could believe the latter, but the trends aren't clear to me. Where can this data be found? 

Finally, if it is true that there has been a disproportionate decrease, who is the audience for these complaints? Who sets funding priorities at NIH? Seems to me it's probably a conversation between the the relevant Congressional committee and senior leadership at NIH? Who should we be yelling at? 

*I could easily imagine altering NIH funding mechanisms to both accommodate an increase in NIH funding, and not generate a surplus of new Ph.D. chemists, but this blog post is too small to contain an explanation of it. 
**reference to Starship Troopers


  1. Good arguments were made but I feel there is more missing. Yes, the industry has heavily relied on chemists for drug development. However, with the amount of merging, downsizing, restructuring, acquisition and shutdown of small companies the market is increasingly competitive for synthetic chemists, I'm sorry but there is NO shortage of those, there are plenty of them looking to get into industry or get back to it after being laid off.

    Also, if funding levels are so low, how is this overabundance of organic PhDs explained? There are not enough jobs for the organic chemists we arleady have! It is an amazing field and its value to society is huge and goes unrecognized. However, I do not believe is sustainable to keep producing so may chemists for a market that doesn't exist anymore.

  2. CJ: Seriously? No one cares when the "bottom line" and stockholders rules the day. I mean all our business model has changed and it has been almost 8 to 10 years since talented synthetic organic chemists have been booted out of the big pharma. The academic professors of big fame are rightly concerned, as there are no jobs for their so called bright students. I reckon that Prof. Buchwald's type of chemistry of discovering another metal/ligand for C-C or C-N bonds does not prepare you for an aspiring synthetic organic chemist! Profs. Baran or Corey different story. But that is my opinion. It is sad and these jobs are not coming back. As for the "residual" synthetic organic chemists who are still hanging on to their jobs it is not the question of if, but when?

  3. My take on it:

    There's also the outsourcing and layoffs.

  4. The quotes remind me more of past circumstances that do not align with current realities in pharma. It used to be virtually all heads of discovery R&D in Pharma had to have a syn org background and most had attitudes looking down on "lesser degree" colleagues (medchemists, biologists, pharmacologist, basically everyone not of their cast) as part of the process. Such had sense of entitlement that they not only drove the bus and could dictate who rode the bus or whose ideas to either ignore or claim as theirs. This all has changed greatly in past several decades particularly as biologics have competed with small molecules and the recognition that biology (many levels), computational and PK/ADME effort all can be equally/more vital to successful outcomes in delivery of candidates. Plus the combichem hype if can make enough molecules are assured of more drugs helped weakened dominance of syn leadership. While I think still can be at the center syn/medchemist contributions rarely predominate projects, which is good because truly must be multidisciplinary. As above there is overabundance now and must find a better balance of new syn chemists to support positions of today not assumptions from years back.

    I do feel NIH does not strongly support basic science any more, which syn org is a minor part, but understanding biology and diseases can likely have greatest impacts long term where current mode of translation/drug discovery efforts are more distractions than guidance to spur innovation. It is the senior leadership at NIH advocating these thing and they are the ones feeding Congress, all of who only listen to frequent complaints about must see applications ROI rather than dependence on the often result that basic science is the foundation of (un-imagined)innovations. IMO unfortunately probably should yell at the public for not allowing/supporting the visionary and create types to persistently failure before they achieve remarkable results. Yes it higher stakes gambling and risking money that might be used elsewhere but no risks/no rewards in not a way to progress.

  5. Pot research is booming... priorities first.

  6. I would love to see more basic science research funding for synthetic chemistry from NIH, but why not make the argument that NSF should see a larger budget rather than having NIGMS fund chemists as it does now? Are we admitting that the taxpayer doesn't want to fund basic science unless it comes with 3 specific aims and an argument about chemistry being useful to human health?

    1. Assuming the changes to funding mechanisms, etc., I would be happy to fund chemistry via NSF.

  7. "I could easily imagine altering NIH funding mechanisms to both accommodate an increase in NIH funding, and not generate a surplus of new Ph.D. chemists, but this blog post is too small to contain an explanation of it."

    Centuries from now, historians will refer to this statement as Chemjobber's Last Theorem.