Friday, October 5, 2018

How are things in Canada for pharma chemists?

Via Twitter, Professor Mark Lautens writes an interesting article in The Globe and Mail about STEM Ph.D.s and the Canadian life sciences industry. I found this section worthy of comment:
Let me give a specific and ultimately encouraging example of the resilience a PhD can offer. The global pharmaceutical industry was growing in Canada over a two-decade period and then hit a wall about 10 years ago. Many Canadian research sites, primarily based in Quebec, closed, in spite of considerable success in drug discovery. Dozens of highly trained chemists, pharmacologists and biologists were suddenly forced to leave the area, the country or the field. It was infuriating. 
Fortunately, ambitious entrepreneurs emerged and joined with the STEM PhDs to build contract research organizations (CRO), which partner with big and small biotech and pharma firms. They do the research and make the discoveries, while the firms take the risk. The talent stayed and built new businesses that are growing at phenomenal rates. Now, hundreds of PhD and MSc STEM researchers are working in profitable Canadian-owned businesses spread across the country. Out of the dust rose many made-in-Canada firms. Even better, these CROs bring money into our economy and export value-added products. 
These jobs are incredibly exciting and abundant. They range from trying to hunt down the latest disease treatment to finding a way to produce a potential drug on sufficient scale for clinical testing. These enormous challenges bring everyone from biologists to chemists to engineers together in collaboration.
Here's my comments and questions on Twitter, and here's Professor Lautens' response. Suffice it to say that I don't think there is a lot of statistical data to back up Professor Lautens' case, even as overall, I agree with him, things are doing better for Canadian pharma scientists. I don't think there is much more ground to be covered there, but I have two questions for the readers:
  • What is your opinion on where both the Quebec life sciences industry has been, and, more broadly, where is Canadian pharma now? 
  • What is the best statistical data that you have to back up your case? 
Readers, five shiny Canadian loonies to the answers I like the best. 

13 comments:

  1. I worked at a CRO in the US that was taking applications and interviews from Canadians. Of the Canadians I interviewed, they painted a picture that's far worse than the US job market in terms of lab-based jobs for chemists. Since they were willing to relocate to the US, I never asked them to clarify if they meant the entire country of Canada or just in their home cities.

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  2. A few points:

    (1) The Chemical Institute of Canada (which roughly covers the roles that the ACS and AIChE cover in the USA) is a small organization, of maybe a dozen people in total. They publish a monthly news magazine (online only), help with national conference organization (though much of the work is done by universities), and organize some outreach events -- that's about it. They dismantled their job board a few years ago and AFAIK they don't collect any kind of data on number of graduated chemists, employment status, etc. You are not likely to find usable statistics to back up any assertion, in any direction.

    (2) Lautens is correct that the Montreal pharma scene (where almost all of the Canadian pharma R&D activity took place) completely imploded around 8-12 years ago. The local research centres of Merck, Boehringer, A-Z, and a few others, all closed up shop, and a lot of chemists were either transferred to the US or lost their jobs altogether. Some found work at CROs (both old and new) but AFAIK many just left the country or left chemistry altogether.

    (3) There were scattered pharma-related R&D operations in cities other than Montreal, but many of them have also shut down (e.g. Eli Lilly's site in the Toronto suburbs). Of course, sales / marketing / regulatory all remain.

    (4) I think Lautens is overstating the degree to which new CRO and startup activity is able to soak up chemistry graduates. There are definitely more chemistry-related startups than there used to be, but there still aren't all that many. The vast majority of the startup activity in Canada has to do with AI, fintech, and the like.

    (5) The situation with chemist hiring in pharma-related companies in Canada is compounded by the fact that many of the non-pharma chemistry-related R&D centres in Canada are either stagnant or contracting. Places like Lanxess, Xerox, 3M, etc.

    (6) Lautens' observations may be influenced by a kind of observer bias, because since he is one of the top names in synthetic organic chemistry in the country, he gets the calls from companies seeking to recruit. It's like asking Evans or Baran about their thoughts on the job market. They wouldn't have a realistic perspective.

    (7) Canada has great quality of life and a great education system, but IMO, we pump out more doctoral graduates than we need, in all fields. Salaries in Canada tend to be notably lower than those in the USA at all job levels (though direct comparisons are difficult) and, especially in computer science and engineering, many fresh graduates are happy to go straight to the USA right after graduation for higher pay. Canada is a small country, population-wise -- about the size of California -- and has always had an economy based on resource extraction and the financial services needed to support it. Pushing R&D here is a tough slog for everyone involved. It's a nut that many governments have tried to crack, with very limited success.

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    Replies
    1. Great answer - Joe Q, where I can send your loonie?

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    2. Keep it as a collector's item!

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    3. 1) The CIC is as bland an organization as you can imagine. Their new executive director used to manage a chemistry lab, and was a real life Bill Lumbergh. The board does not consider job prospects for chemists as something it should be involved in. They have no policies on encouraging investment within the industry, highlighting the contributions of the field, and do not interface with government or regulatory authorities at any level.

      I agree with all the others points Joe Q made here. There are very few reasons to invest in Canadian research, and the trajectory is heading downwards. It's still expensive, but without the supporting infrastructure and federal funding you'd find in Germany or the US. Still better than the UK in terms of openings and salaries.

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    4. Joe Q, would it be possible for you to contact me via e-mail? chemjobber@gmail.com

      Thank you in advance. Best wishes, CJ

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  3. There is still Gilead process in Edmonton and they were hiring in 2016 but I now a chemist who went there to start his own group at this time - and he is in SoCal already. I had a friend in who used to work for Merck in Canada, after the layoffs he ended up as a bank employee approving car loans/

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    1. Yes -- It is politically "easy" for multinationals to reduce or eliminate their Canadian research centres, in that only Canadians really care when that happens, and Canada isn't a big enough market to make that actually matter.

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    2. Milkshake,

      There were a large number of openings that randomly appeared at Gilead in Edmonton a few months ago. That seemed unusual to me, but I don't know enough about the canadian job market.

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  4. Also, my former colleague was from Toronto and did his graduate work for Hudlicky, he relocated to US for personal and salary reasons, but what he described to me in terms of job opportunities in Canada for organic chemists, it was bleak

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    Replies
    1. Hudlicky himself is a big name, but the university he is at is not known for research, and has a middling reputation overall. Even if the Canadian job market were more vigorous, graduates from that school would still be at a relative disadvantage.

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  5. Does anyone have any insight as to how the pharma industry compares to other fields in chemistry? Do any (outside of lab-tech slave positions) offer stable/secure employment?

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