Protectionism in the Sciences

Derek Lowe, who runs the excellent drug industry blog, In the Pipeline, posted a few days ago about the bad news that keeps coming out of the Pharma Industry. I’m in one of those areas of neuroscience research that works closely with many of the big players in the Pharma world and we have seen the hard times first hand with our various industry collaborators. People are holding onto their jobs by the thinnest of threads at many of these companies and the chemistry side of the operation (which is what Derek does) has been especially hard hit. One of the reasons is outsourcing, there is no question about that. But what is to be done about it?

Derek posts some ideas in a follow up but let’s get to the thoughts of some of the commenters first. Wendy writes:

That is the ridiculous banter you hear from all those selling what is a dying career model. Chemistry globally may live on but the US scientist is plagued by the massive influx of scientists from 3rd world countries.

Under the current conditions a five year halt of ALL visas provided to scientists should be enacted. Since MTK is full of the entrepreneurial spirit, I’m sure he’ll have no problem creating a new, dynamic company in his own country.

It’s time to stop leeching.

Dynamo says:

This is a problem for americans because of the entitlement issues felt strongly by forigeners for American jobs. Foreign workers should get the axe first. Our govt is run by the same people who ruined our banking system. They want cheap labor, nothing more.

These nefarious (evil?) people are the current architects of the current job crisis for US citizens. Ship back the excess and we’ll all be fine.

Folks, this is crazy talk! It is understandable that people are scared for their jobs. The economy stinks and countries around the world are increasing their capabilities for basic R&D where it can be done cheaply (at least for a US or European based company) and efficiently. But the key here is innovation, we must be able to keep our edge and the way we do that is to continue to bring in the absolute best and brightest people and give them an opportunity to shine. Protectionism cannot work for jobs based on innovation. It may save your job for an extra year or so but in the long-term you’ll be screwed.

Thankfully, Derek sets his readers straight in that follow-up post I mentioned:

And as for foreign scientists working here, well, I think that one of the reasons I’ve been living in one of the greatest places in the world is that it’s been a haven for all sorts of bright, hard-working people. We’re not going to turn this into an immigration blog – there’s lots of room to argue about our current policies, particularly regarding unskilled laborers. But that’s not what we’re dealing with in the sciences. As far as I can see, we can use all the intelligent, creative, entrepreneurial people we can take, and we need to make sure that our country is the kind of place that people like that aspire to live in.

He then goes on to give some advice that bears repeating for anyone working in the sciences (academic or industry):

So improve your skills. Learn new techniques, especially the ones that are just coming out and haven’t percolated down to the crank-it-out shops in the low-wage countries. Stay on top of the latest stuff, take on tough assignments. Keeping your head down in times like these will move you into the crowd that looks like it can be safely let go.

That’s one thing. Another one is the traditional advice given in all industries: keep in touch with everyone you know around the business. Use networking sites, keep current phone numbers, drop people an e-mail now and then. Getting laid off may well have had nothing to do with what you did – but finding a new job will have everything to do with it. If you don’t have any contacts around the business, large outfits and small, you’re going to have a harder time of it for sure.

And finally, here’s a more macro-scale suggestion. We medicinal chemists need to think more about being the source of startup companies ourselves. That’s harder to do if you’re part of a service group, or if you have that mentality. If your job is to crank out molecules, then you need to find a place that needs someone to do that. But if you’ve got a larger skill set, it may be large enough to get together with some other creative people and try to get some funding for ideas that no one else is doing. People still need medicines, and as long as we can still discover them here, it sure beats waiting for the phone to ring. If the bigger companies are in fact making a mistake by cutting research, what better revenge than to make them wish they hadn’t?

That’s right, this is no time to whine and complain (no I don’t agree with Phil Gramm). It’s time to raise our collective games and show our worth. The economy needs us scientific innovators right about now and its time to show policy makers and taxpayers why. Get to work!

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4 responses to “Protectionism in the Sciences

  1. I think a lot of Americans (and Canadians for that matter) should go read Friedmans “The World is Flat” for a bit of inspiration. Throwing out smart, hardworking foreigners is only going to make more problems. The issue is about culture: my family has been in Canada for many generations and so I’m used to my comforts and my security. There is no need to work 18 hours a day and live with my entire family in a 1-bedroom apartment. So it’s no surprise that the motivated immigrant from a poor or war-torn country is going to work his/her ass off and end up with a better grade point average, more savings and a better job. If we North Americans want to be better off, we have to act as though we could lose everything anytime. That means we have to study hard, save money and quit wasting resources.

  2. Great post! Crawling into our shells and blaming others isn’t going to help anyone.

  3. I think a lot of Americans (and Canadians for that matter) should go read Friedmans “The World is Flat” for a bit of inspiration.

    Friedman is a ridiculous fuckwit who has married into one of the largest real-estate empires in the United States. His writing is self-serving bullshit. Don’t believe a single fucking word he writes.

  4. How do you really feel PP. Seriously though, Friedman has made some ridiculous claims and he was an enabler of the Iraq war. However, I cannot help but get the feeling that he wants to atone for his previous mistakes. His editorials over the past year have consistently hit the right cord on energy and innovation issues. Very few high profile editorial page writers have been able to convey the urgency that is needed on these issues like he has. I think he deserves some credit for this. I’m also reading his new book right now. It puts me off that his writing style in the book is virtually identical to his editorial page stuff, but, he gets the point across very well.

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