Think Before You Fire
Industry layoffs may save a few dollars, at the cost of losing the collective brainpower of thousands of scientists.
The evening of my layoff I found myself sitting on the roof of my car repairing the light in my garage door opener. Of course, it had chosen that day to malfunction. As I was soldering in the door opener’s new logic board, I started thinking about all of the other laid-off scientists and about the waste of collective brainpower. Even those who haven’t been let go, or who are able to find new jobs, are feeling more and more restricted and limited in their research, constantly oppressed by the pressure to do more with less and in less time. It seems that industry has forgotten that science takes time, and when you push it, bad things often happen.
And so I decided to explore the ramifications of layoffs both on a personal and societal level. I talked with several of my scientist friends and former colleagues, including academics and those working in industry, from bench scientists all the way up to senior VPs. I also spoke with current and future graduate students and to people tangentially associated with R&D, including project managers and quality-control professionals. What I found was a creativity and productivity drain—an enormous underutilization of brainpower that could and should be answering the most challenging questions facing the human race and the planet.
Scientists who are lucky enough to be employed are finding their creativity and ingenuity stunted by shrinking R&D budgets and a lack of autonomy.
A scientist out of work is like a fire with nothing to burn. Problem solving and exploration are the fuel that keeps our fires burning—hence my garage-door-opener–fixing session the day I was laid off. Having something to fix and puzzle over kept my mind occupied and got me through a difficult time far more effectively than any movie or television show could have. I found this a common theme in the conversations I had with other laid-off researchers over the next few weeks. One of the scientists I spoke with has been looking for work for more than a year and talked of how he missed the intellectual stimulation even more than the paycheck.
Focusing solely on the bottom line while not taking into careful consideration the impact that R&D cutbacks and layoffs will have on the scientitfic, technological, and therapeutic advances of the future will cost us far more than money.
I also found that those scientists who are lucky enough to be employed are finding their creativity and ingenuity stunted by shrinking R&D budgets and a lack of autonomy. They spoke of how rarely they were asked for their opinions and how increasingly common it was to have decisions supposedly based on science made by nonscientists. They also spoke of the ever-present worry about being laid off and what that would mean not just for them, but for their research projects. Typically, there is no debriefing when a researcher is laid off, and much of the “soft” information gathered over the life of the project—such as ideas jotted down on scrap paper or knowledge stored away in the scientist’s head—is lost.
For some, the unsteady pharmaceutical research environment became too much to bear. One senior-level scientist with decades of experience decided to leave science altogether after suffering the consequences of repeated mergers. Others were driven back to academia, such as the former president of a major biotech company who decided to leave his position and return to the bench at a local university, realizing that his brain needed an outlet that he could not find in the confines of upper management. But even academia is no safe haven from economic pressures. When I spoke to academic researchers, I heard less about autonomy and job security than about the never-ending grant application process, the dismal pay for bench scientists and postdocs, and the increasing level of bureaucracy pulling scientists away from research and into meetings that appear to accomplish very little.
I also talked with present and future graduate students, who spoke of being lured away by parents and teachers into professions with greater security and higher pay. After all, there are far more lucrative and easier fields than science for these young men and women to enter. It is imperative that, instead of redirecting these incredible young minds, we nurture their talent and enthusiasm for scientific research. If we do not, we risk losing an entire generation of potential.
But there is hope found in research centers around the world that are transforming how we conduct science. Take, for example, the not-for-profit Cell Therapy Catapult in London, established in 2012 as a center of excellence in innovation. Its mission is to “drive the growth of the industry by helping cell therapy organizations across the world translate early-stage research into commercially viable and investable therapies.” It bridges the often difficult divide between academic institutions, for-profit businesses, and other research communities. In other words, it allows scientists to be their most creative and productive while in turn advancing the business of cell therapy. This model, and models similar to it, could and should be utilized in other research disciplines. Collective brainpower is an invaluable commodity.
We all know that drug development, clinical trials, and other aspects of biomedical research are extremely expensive. Yet focusing solely on the bottom line while not taking into careful consideration the impact that R&D cutbacks and layoffs will have on the scientific, technological, and therapeutic advances of the future will cost us far more than money. We will lose generations of scientists to other careers, and with them the breakthroughs, cures, and pure genius that will shape our collective tomorrows.
Sarah Ramsay is a biochemist and cell biologist living in Fort Worth, Texas. She has spent the last 11 years working in the field of regenerative medicine with an emphasis on wound healing.
Opinion: Abandoned by the System
Lab techs and other highly qualified employees are too often given short shrift by the biomedical research enterprise.
When starting up a laboratory, early-career researchers usually hire a lab technician or a research assistant. These “permanent” employees—i.e. non-students—are a vital part of any lab. They are often in charge of training newcomers and are responsible for specialized research platforms. With their unique expertise and experience, they are also the memory of the lab.
Early-career researchers have to deal with a great deal of stress due to the responsibilities inherent to their jobs, such as writing grants, preparing courses, supervising their labs, and attending to teaching and administrative duties. On top of this, they need to churn out research results. Highly qualified employees (HQEs), such as experienced lab techs and research assistants, are vital to this process because they serve as a bridge between the principal investigator (PI) and the lab and enable the PI to concentrate on other tasks.
Problems for these employees arise when funding is lost or their bosses retire. This can be very stressful for HQEs, who are faced with an increasingly shaky job market. What’s worse, many Canadian universities do not consider such HQEs official employees. These employees’ jobs are totally dependent on the funding of their boss and his or her ability to keep the grant money rolling in.
When HQEs have been working in the same lab for 20 to 30 years and their boss loses his or her funding or retires, they may not be able to compete with up-and-coming researchers, despite their expertise and experience. If they are lucky, these folks will find a job in another lab. Given that a growing number of researchers are losing their grants or retiring, however, an increasing number of HQEs are now facing the prospect of long-term unemployment. From our experience, the chance of an unemployed HQE finding another job is fading away like snow on a warm spring day.
Lab techs, research assistants, and other HQEs—our friends and colleagues—are disappearing from biomedical research because of a dysfunctional funding system. This is all the more tragic for HQEs who have devoted their careers to science.
One possible solution would be a transition period to help universities to relocate HQEs before they become unemployed. Why not look to successful policies in other countries such as Switzerland, where HQEs can benefit from job security regardless of what happens to the boss?
As grant-funding rates continue to fall flat, more and more HQEs will have to deal with job loss. Real solutions must be developed now to avoid losing their critical scientific expertise and creating tragic personal situations.
According to World Bank statistics, the Canadian government decreased its support for research from 2.04 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2005 to 1.73 percent in 2012. Stabilizing or increasing government investment in research is vital, especially with the fate of HQEs hanging in the balance. Many countries around the world with good economic growth—such as China—are showing the way by increasing the percentage of their GDP devoted to funding research.
Steve Charette is an associate professor of microbiology at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. Antony Vincent is a PhD student at Université Laval. Jean Barbeau is a professor of microbiology at Université de Montréal.Tags