The Pleasures and Perils of Scientists in Industry

Photos courtesy of TransForm Pharmaceuticals (left) and Pioneer Hi-Bred(center and right) The majority of participants in The Scientist's "Best Places in to Work for Scientists in Industry"

By | June 16, 2003

Photos courtesy of TransForm Pharmaceuticals (left) and Pioneer Hi-Bred(center and right)

The majority of participants in The Scientist's "Best Places in to Work for Scientists in Industry" survey reported that they valued their workplaces because the companies maintained industry standards, kept promises, and sustained the staffs' pride in their work. The magazine asked employees in life sciences companies to evaluate their own workplaces and identify company characteristics that employees consider important. Six of the top 10 factors they chose relate to integrity and work ethic, three of the top 10 relate to training, and only one to pay as significant issues. "I have passed up increased pay offers in order to stay in this honest, comfortable, and friendly atmosphere," says survey participant Richard Triglia, of Chemicon International, a Temecula, Calif.-based biotechnology company.

We posted a web based survey and invited our industry based readers to respond. From over 25,000 invitations, we received 1,373 useable responses from scientists in industry in the USA, Canada and western Europe, of whom 1022 are involved in research. We asked respondents to assess their work environment experience by indicating their level of agreement with 46 positive statements. We identified responses from 725 separate companies but included the 61 companies with 4 or more responses in the rankings. The overall rankings were based on the average score per company from all respondents on 15 factors rated most important. Detailed information on the survey methodology is available at Although our sample of scientists in industry was large, it was self selected, and we have made no attempt to standardize the results or to do detailed statistical analysis.

To learn what scientists such as Triglia think about their workplaces, The Scientist sorted through 1,373 survey responses from scientists in industry in the United States, Canada, and western Europe. Though not a scientific study, the survey's results, and the views expressed in it, provide a profile of industry scientists' goals.

Fifty-seven percent of life sciences workers said that maintaining industry ethical standards is important. An understanding of the company's mission, and the employee's role in it, ranked second, with 55% of the votes. Equally valued, participants indicated, was the company's track record in keeping promises, both to employees and to the customer. "We all have an ethics code that we go by and sign," says Bill Dolezal, a research fellow in plant pathology at Pioneer Hi-Bred International based in Des Moines, Iowa, the top-ranking company with more than 500 workers in The Scientist's survey. "I work a lot with international law, and it is very clear that we follow the law; if not, it will clearly lead to dismissal. It's a very curt law."

PRESSURE TO PRODUCE Researchers' endorsements of integrity arrive amid a flare-up of corporate scandals, touched off by the Enron debacle in 2001, that scorched the energy, telecommunications, and financial services markets. While life sciences companies, and industries that employ scientists in general, have remained relatively unscathed by this outbreak of disgrace so far, the fallout from the ImClone and Elan scandals have worried some industry leaders.1,2

At the same time, financial challenges in the biotechnology industry--a receding of venture capital investment, for example--keep small companies stressed. Big pharma, in turn, faces yawning pipelines. Investment in drug development has tripled in the past 10 years to more than $30 billion (US), but the industry has fewer new drugs to show for it. After peaking at 131 in 1996, the number of new drug applications filed with the US Food and Drug Administration dropped to 78 in 2002.3 These economic realities put strain on researchers and their resources. "Along with many other people at the company right now, we feel that more work is expected with less people," says a survey participant who works at the London site of a major pharmaceutical company. "We are being pushed beyond our limits to states of fatigue and breakdown, and extra hours and hard work is not appreciated but expected."

In addition to financial pressure, industry scientists also face heightened public expectations. "The public wants their drugs faster, they want them cheaper, they want them more potent, they want them safer," says Mark Rogge, a consultant to the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists and senior director of preclinical development at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics.

DEFINING ETHICS With so many pressures, and given the complexity of scientific research, it's not always easy to define "industry standards" or ethics. Scientists have internalized their own "strong and pervasive ethical norms" through their training, says Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. "Researchers have been taught to value scientific integrity in all its senses--understanding the worth of knowledge, discovery, and the appropriate crediting of writers and researchers. [Scientists] are taught to take pride in their work," Murray adds.

For Rogge, the meaning of standards can be difficult to pinpoint. "There can be a lot of gray area when you don't know necessarily everything about your drug, what it does, and we could study a drug for 25 years and still probably not know everything about [it]," he says. "When do you stop studying it? When do you stop putting a massive amount of resources into understanding your drug? Where you stop doing that work--you try to tie ethics to that. ... Everyone has ethics ... it's just a matter of where you draw that line."

Some of the top-ranking companies in the survey draw that line by doing frequent evaluations, reviews, and training exercises. "Papers are reviewed across functional groups in the organization," says Sherry Morissette, a group leader and senior scientist at Lexington, Mass.-based TransForm Pharmaceuticals, which ranked ninth in the survey among companies with less than 500 employees.


Courtesy of Pioneer Hi-Bred International
Harking back to its founding in 1926, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont, strives to maintain a humble philosophy that reflects its Midwestern roots. "Our work ethic comes from when the company was founded from an earn-an-honest-living scenario," says Jim Miller, vice president of research and development. Pioneer, based in Des Moines, Iowa, ranks number one among large companies whose workers participated in The Scientist's survey of the best biotech and pharmaceutical workplaces.

Pioneer developed a "Long Look" philosophy in 1952 as a backbone for company operations. The philosophy outlines four simple steps describing how the business should be handled. It focuses on producing the best products on the market, dealing fairly with employees and customers, selling products without misrepresentation, and assisting customer decisions. "We take a long-term view of everything we do; we don't succumb to the short-term aspects," Miller explains.

In part because it produces and sells hybrid seeds worldwide, Pioneer encourages diversity. "We have a lot of different cultures in our organization, and we pay attention to the environment [that] people need to be successful in," he says. Exemplifying such diversity is the Crop Genetics Asian American Network, a new group organized to support the company's Asian researchers. The CGAAN "works as a mentoring group ... they epitomize the idea of diversity," says Bill Dolezal, research fellow of plant pathology.

Defined by mentoring processes and teamwork, the workplace culture "is one of a learning environment. We are very progressive in balancing team and individual," says Miller. "We have an understanding that you may not hit oil every time you drill."

To relieve scientists' stress, Pioneer promotes health programs such as a 10K walk, with incentives that include a Caribbean cruise for the victor. "[Pioneer] wants to promote the health and longevity of personnel; it's a vested interest," says Dolezal. Outside of the workplace, Pioneer has shouldered its share of legal and political squabbles, which the plant industry watches, because the outcomes often define important questions in patent law.

Like other plant biotechs, the company has met obstacles in Europe. In 1998, Europe introduced a de facto moratorium on biotech crops, a ruling that has gained the power of an official declaration as years have gone by, slowing exports of corn to Europe. In attempts to increase acceptance of genetically modified foods, Miller says, Pioneer tries "to help educate so people can make decisions with all that is available."

--Obaid Siddiqui


BUSINESS VS. RESEARCH Many survey participants endorsed company attributes that they said made them proud of working in the industry. But some respondents pointed to tension between scientific workers and business leaders. "I have 10 years of hands-on bench science experience," says David Smith, a survey participant and senior scientist at a Southern California biotech, in an interview. "It was my assumption that I was hired because of that experience and the potential benefit to the research program. Unfortunately, however, we frequently find our comments regarding particular experimental results or our criticism of action plans squelched or completely ignored. We're even frequently labeled as 'negative' and 'troublemakers.'"

Sam Salek, director of the Centre of Socioeconomic Research at Cardiff University's Welsh School of Pharmacy, says that the tension between scientists and business divisions have permeated the industry for the last 20 years. The pharmaceutical companies' and other public corporations' first obligation is to stockholders, he says. "In the beginning, the company is profit-making. There's nothing wrong with that."

CLAIMS VS. CONTEXT Some survey participants also discussed uneasiness about conflicts between a company's public statements and its day-to-day management. This was particularly true regarding equity in pay, hiring, and promotional practices. Many of the large pharmaceutical companies are considered leaders in the area of human resources. Yet, quality incentive programs at multiple work sites can be costly and difficult to maintain. "The benefits and initiatives instigated at corporate level HR are not fully implemented at company level, leaving a gap between plan and reality," says a worker in the British office of a major pharmaceutical company.


Courtesy of Inspire Pharmaceuticals
Even in the competitive biotechnology environment of North Carolina, Inspire Pharmaceuticals makes time for its employees to take it easy, even go for a ride. Respondents to The Scientist's survey named the Durham-based company as "The Best Place to Work for Scientists in Industry" among businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Accolades from Inspire's workers, who number about 75, highlight the management style: "Management wants everyone to be comfortable here. We even went roller skating a few weeks ago," says senior research scientist Bill Eckert. "I don't think I've ever seen our vice president wear a tie."

Operational since 1995, Inspire projects that its first product launch will be in 2004. Its remedy for 'dry eye' is expected to be a tonic for Inspire's finances as well. The company has signed development and distribution agreements with three pharmaceutical companies to develop its products, according to Inspire's Web site. And, like other biotechs, it has poured much of its revenue, and its projected revenue, into drug development. Since 1998, Inspire has had progressively increasing losses, totaling $78.3 million (US). Company president Greg Mossinghoff says the ability to weather such economic hardships reflects the pharmaceutical experience many officers have brought with them. "We've focused on creating a team environment [that] results in rapid decision-making and [our employees] feeling like they are a major part of everything we do."
Mossinghoff says the company plans to double the number of Inspire employees over the coming year.

--Hal Cohen


Some female workers perceive favoritism toward male colleagues. An employee at a large pharmaceutical company in southern California questions its reputation as a place that promotes women and minorities of merit equally with men. "I always wonder why the damned place gets such high ratings," she says. "I don't know how they run things on the East Coast, but in San Diego they are a PhD's redneck boys' club."

Another scientist exalted in her climb up the corporate ladder. "I'm a high-level female business development exec in pharma," says Kathe Andrews-Cramer, vice president, business development for Argenta Discovery in Harlow, UK. "Need I say more?"

Like Andrews-Cramer, most workers relayed excitement and enthusiasm about jobs that allowed them to work creatively, feel good about their contributions to science, and constantly improve their skills. "My overall work experience is very good," says an Abbott scientist at the company headquarters in Abbott Park, Ill.

Biotech employees, and particularly those who transferred to small companies from the pharmaceutical industry, praised their companies' culture. That environment allows staff to dress casually, involves them in decision-making, and encourages them to maintain flexible hours so they balance their home lives and work days.

Paula Park (, Alexander Grimwade (, Hal Cohen (, and Obaid Siddiqui ( are on staff at The Scientist.

1. K. Uraneck, "Balancing business and science at Imclone," 16[24]:54-6, The Scientist, Dec. 9, 2002.

2. J. Sullivan, "Plethora of scandals keep market on edge," The Irish Times, Dec. 27, 2002.

3. S. Warner, "Pipeline anxiety: Scientists pumped into new roles," The Scientist, 17[10]:46-8, May 19, 2003.

The Øresund region bridging Copenhagen, Denmark, and southern Sweden is home to Medicon Valley, host of about 60% of Scandinavia's biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. As one of the largest scientific locales in Europe, the Medicon Valley also is home to the European research and development facilities of AstraZeneca in Lund, Sweden. AZ was chosen by participants in The Scientist's "Best Places in Industry" survey as the top non-US place to work with more than 500 employees.

With more than 10,000 employees at the Swedish site, bureaucracy can easily stifle creative thinking. Malcolm Hurrell, HR vice president at the company's London headquarters, says that management has striven to develop a strategy to meet workers' demands. "When we ask our employees what they want, it's always 'being able to contribute and to create an environment where ideas can come to surface and be heard,'" he says.

AstraZeneca has experienced real growth in revenues and profits during the last decade. But at the same time, the company must respond to the same systemic problems that pique other large pharmaceutical corporations. With a generic version of its best-selling product, Prilosec, launched this past December, AZ's net profit has eroded 20% from ¤1.09 billion in first-quarter 2002 to ¤869 million in first-quarter 2003, The Financial Times reported on May 5.

As many scientists prefer to continue working in the lab throughout their careers, AZ's management has launched "Science Ladder," a program that recognizes scientists' desire to stay in research and not be sent into management for career advancement. AZ workers in the United Kingdom and Sweden, and in the United States as well, can tailor their packages by adding more benefits, vacation time, or cash. "[The program] rewards quality and depth in scientific thinking to stimulate a long-term career interest in science," Hurrell says.

Employee surveys every two years keep managers attuned to workers' wants. "Managers review them, consult employees, and put a set of action plans together," Hurrell says. "It's a very structured way of turning things around within a few months." In a recent survey, employees asked for more recognition of their good work. Managers attended workshops on how to make staff feel more valuable, and approval went up substantially by the next survey. Lars Hedbys says that he has found constant stimulation in his work. In his 14 years with AZ, the vice president of project management for respiratory and inflammation therapeutics has held several positions.

Since the merger of Astra and Zeneca four years ago, Hedbys says, he has seen a noticeable change in the company from "a university campus feeling to a business focusing on finance and productivity. It's necessary, because the whole industry has changed," he explains. "I think it's all about trying to find the right balance of good science and good business."

--Hal Cohen


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