Think Before You Fire

Industry layoffs may save a few dollars, at the cost of losing the collective brainpower of thousands of scientists.

May 1, 2015
Sarah Ramsay

© DUSAN PETRICIC

Have you ever been laid off? It happened to me for the first time this February, along with a considerable number of my colleagues, two years after my longtime employer—a truly innovative and forward-thinking midsize pharmaceutical company—was purchased by a larger pharma company. As is customary in such situations, a security guard escorted me to my office, where I was instructed to pack my things into two cardboard boxes. It was an altogether surreal experience, one that some of you may know all too well. Layoffs have become an unfortunately familiar part of life in the pharmaceutical industry, and R&D is always low-hanging fruit in such situations, as we do not make money for the company in the short term. Scientists continue to be let go at an alarming rate, and are often unable to find work no matter their level of experience.

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.

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.

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 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.