Derek Lowe says this is no time to be an 'ordinary' scientist

The relentless run of layoffs in the pharmaceutical industry continues. As I write, word is coming out about deep cutbacks at GlaxoSmithKline (see p13), and there’s no reason to think that they will be the last company to take such actions. My sympathy goes out to those affected - I’ve been through job cuts and site closures myself. It’s worth asking what drug-company chemists can expect under these conditions, and what the future might hold.

The main thing to emphasise, unfortunately, is that no one (and no company) is immune to this sort of thing. The drug industry is inherently risky and volatile, and the potential for job cuts is always there. We can argue about the wisdom and timing of some of the ones we’ve been seeing, of course, but those details don’t change the bigger situation.

How did we end up here, then? Outsourcing of research is often blamed, but I believe that it’s a symptom, not a cause. While I can’t deny that the movement of jobs to lower-cost countries has had an effect, the numbers don’t seem to add up to make it the main explanation.

Problems in the pipeline 

Research and clinical productivity problems are probably closer to the real answer: if drug companies had well-stocked pipelines, they wouldn’t be so focused on cutting costs. (Figuring out why those pipelines are empty is another topic entirely, one that has kept a number of people in rather more secure employment than the drug industry itself offers). 

But paring down research leads to a possible vicious circle. 

Too-vigorous cutbacks will hurt the chances to ever get those pipelines back into the desired shape. Not only is there the sheer loss of talent and experience, there’s the effect on the morale of the scientists left behind. It’s difficult to get motivated to put in extra effort for a company that’s just thrown your former colleagues overboard. The biggest incentive left is to try to save your own skin from future rounds of layoffs, an undertaking that’s always tinged with the fear that nothing might be enough to do that. 

Adjust accordingly 

So what action should a scientist take? The first thing is to make a psychological adjustment, if it hasn’t been made already, and realize that no job in this business is permanent. Any scientist who thinks ten or 15 years into their future and pictures themselves at the same company should think again. It might happen, but the odds are not good and they are not improving. If you consider the real possibility that your job could be at risk, you’ll approach your work from a different perspective. 

Thinking this way is stressful at first, but it has long-term advantages. It focuses one’s attention on some important points. Industrial chemists must remember what they have that employers would find valuable - or what they can offer that can’t be purchased more cheaply in Bangalore or Shanghai, for that matter. 

This is not a good time to be an ordinary, interchangeable scientist in the drug industry, because the ordinary scientists are usually the first ones to be shown the door. (Unfortunately, they’re sometimes followed by people who would be assets to any company). Learning new skills and broadening experience are the sorts of things that human resources departments are always talking about, but these actions can help you find another job if your current one disappears. 

It should go without saying that an industrial chemist should always have an updated CV. Add to it whenever possible. And you’ll need somewhere to send it to if the worst does happen, so keep up with your contacts around the industry, large companies and small. The effort is worth it. Doing all these things actually helps to dispel fear, rather than adding to it, as one might think. Fear has an unusual dose-response curve: larger exposures lead to paralysis, but a small amount can act as a stimulant. 

I’ve said before that we may be looking at a realignment of the business, away from larger companies and toward a larger number of smaller ones. Those smaller companies will indeed be less secure, but the companies that have bet on the opposite trend - growing larger and larger - don’t seem to be very secure these days, either. This isn’t the world we’d prefer to live in, nor the one we expected, but it’s the one we have. 

Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist working on preclinical drug discovery in the US