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Disturbing Trends

by Rudy M. Baum
November 29, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 48

Last month I wrote an editorial entitled “Chemistry: Alive and Well” in which, on the basis of conversations I had had at CPhI and Stanford University’s Johnson Symposium, I argued that, all in all, the chemistry enterprise is in pretty good shape (C&EN, Oct. 18, page 3).

I did not think the editorial would be controversial. For the most part it wasn’t, but it did engender some angry comments on the “Editor’s Blog” on “CENtral Science.”

And reader Victor Snieckus, Bader Chair Emeritus in Organic Chemistry at Queen’s University, in Ontario, was prompted to write: “With due respect, your editorial brings to mind the racehorse with blinkers on to prevent it from looking sideways. The comment ‘business is returning at a slower pace than … hoped for’ should be viewed as a pacifying understatement. The Johnson Symposium is certainly representative of chemistry at the forefront of biology. But the dismay is elsewhere: in the trenches of synthetic organic chemists in pharma and biotech companies, large and small, who are fired, early retired, and packaged-off in various forms. I suggest you try your editorial’s title on some of these chemists and write a second one.”

I responded to Snieckus that I was writing about the discipline of chemistry, not the employment situation of synthetic organic chemists employed by the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, and that the chemistry enterprise is healthy despite the bleak employment situation that some chemists regrettably face.

Three items in last week’s issue of C&EN, however, gave me pause. In one news story (Nov. 22, page 6), we reported that Roche is eliminating 4,800 jobs, largely in the U.S., and that, overall, 6,300 employees, or 6% of its workforce, will be affected. Among the planned reductions are 600 jobs in R&D. Meanwhile, jobs outsourced to India are expected to rise by more than 60% to 650 in 2012.

In the same story, we reported that Pfi­zer “expects to exceed its target of cutting 15% of its staff, or about 19,000 jobs, set after it acquired Wyeth in late 2009.” The jobs are primarily in U.S. sales, manufacturing, R&D, and corporate operations.

In the same issue (page 5), the lead news story focused on Pfizer’s new “academic network” to accelerate the translation of basic science into biologics-based drugs. The University of California, San Francisco, has signed on as the first of what are expected to be seven or eight partners in Pfizer’s Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation. Pfizer will award UCSF up to $85 million over the five-year partnership.

Is this really something to cheer about? Marcia Angell, the former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine who is now at Harvard University, told C&EN that the pact “goes one more step in blurring the boundaries between academia and industry as though they had the same missions—which they don’t.”

It’s worse than that, though, isn’t it? While Pfizer lays off 19,000 employees, a substantial number of them chemists involved in R&D, it is effectively outsourcing drug discovery R&D to cash-strapped universities. I’m sure the agreement between Pfizer and UCSF has all sorts of guarantees about academic freedom and the rights of UCSF scientists to publish their results, someday at least, but the partnership does not seem to me to be in the best interests of the students and postdocs at UCSF nor in the best interests of basic biomedical research.

Finally, C&EN almost never publishes letters to the editor without explicitly identifying the writer. In the case of the letter in the same issue on “Outsourcing Woes” (page 2), I made an exception to this rule for the reasons stated in the letter—the writer worries about losing his/her job if the opinions expressed in the letter become known to his/her employer. Outsourcing pharmaceutical R&D, according to this “senior medicinal chemist,” isn’t the magic bullet it’s often made out to be.

I still think the discipline of chemistry is fundamentally healthy, but I’m not such a Pollyanna that I don’t recognize that there are some disturbing trends out there.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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