Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What are the long-term consequences of losing mid-career pharma scientists?

Susan Ainsworth's article in C&EN on chemists about finding new careers has been posted for a week or two; it's worth reading (said the guy who was quoted). The full comment that I made to Ms. Ainsworth on the long-term consequences of retooling are below:
The core of the retooling issue in regards to the long-term is: who is retooling? If extremely senior people are getting out of the industry, it's probably a net loss to the chemical enterprise, but they're more likely to remain somewhat connected to the industry via consulting, etc. If large groups of chemists that have been in the industry for 5 to 15 years begin leaving the industry and "retooling", I believe that this would be a very serious issue, in that their experience, leadership and potential positive changes they would have made to the industry would be lost.
The analogy I would make is this: back in 2006 or so, there were a spate of articles about the mid-rank officers who were leaving the military. For example, Maj. John Nagl was considered one of the US Army's leading thinkers on counterinsurgency theory; he left in 2008 (?). Now that he's employed by CNAS, he's not exerting his influence directly on the military. That's a net loss for the future, I'd think. If he were to retool and move out of the policy sphere completely, that loss would be even greater.

There's probably a break-even point for investment in a pharmaceutical labor pool; I'm going to guess that it takes at least 5 years to train a medicinal chemist to the point that they're at the top of their career potential. If you're shuttering sites and laying people off, some of those people and some of the potential long-term gain to pharma will be lost for good. While some of the more talented scientists would probably be picked up, some other talented people will decide "pharma is not for me" and leave. If the job market for medicinal chemists does not recover, the loss will likely be permanent.

What percentage of these mid-career scientists can pharma lose before there are real, negative long-term consequences to the industry? Lame to say, but we're about to find out.


  1. According to my friends working as scientists in Big Pharma, the bulk of the losses are occurring on the older side of the mid-career group, with a few greenhorns thrown in to the layoff heap to avoid age discrimination lawsuits. While some can blame the old guard for stagnating, I fear that this brain-drain will have even more severe consequences. Most organic programs do not teach real med chem or large-scale manufacturing, since it is presumed that there will be on the job training. By getting rid of the highly experienced crowd, pharma R&D will be populated with young scientists who, despite being smart, will have a difficult time bringing products to market.

  2. I thought there was a shortage of chemists? All of the faculty at my grad school tell me that things will rebound soon. President Obama even said there was a shortage of scientists.

    It seems this blog is out of touch. Maybe things were bad a few years ago and you haven't updated your perspective.

  3. A10:55a: That's awesome -- nice try.

  4. I've been through several layoffs in my career. Most of the time, they target the chemists near retirement and the people with the least seniority. What scared me about this one was that the mid-level chemists were being eliminated entirely. At my last job, the company kept the entry level chemists and the team leaders. Almost no one in between. In the short term the chemists that were left could finish up the projects that were left, but I think their long term plan was to move most of the work overseas (if there was any work left).

    I never had any trouble getting a job before. I had 15 years of experience as a bench chemist, and companies seemed to value that. But I looked at the job market and saw fewer and fewer opportunities for mid-level chemists. I didn't want to be over-40 and trying to compete with students just out of grad school, especially in an environment where a job might only last a couple of years. I decided to leave pharma. What has shocked me is how many people I know that have done the same thing - chemists with years of experience, people I considered the "best of the best" when it came to bench work. That experience won't easily be replaced. It's not something you learn in grad school - you have to learn it on the job. If this continues for a few more years, I wonder if pharmaceutical research in the U.S. will ever recover.

  5. Are the the "Kay" who's been commenting on In the Pipeline a long time? If so, welcome and I am honored!

  6. One and the same! I was thrilled to discover that someone had been reading my comments. (Sometimes you wonder...)