Biotech future? Not that bright?

Arthur E. Sowers arthures at
Tue Mar 10 23:34:39 EST 1998

Two items

As you old timers on SRC know, one of our recruiter posters on this
newsgroup has been blowing his horn about how dandy the biotech future is.
And I, myself, have been encouraging people to reconsider any long term
expectations for a long career in academia (because it will be unlikely)
and maybe reconsider a career even in science. 

Now, in the March, 1998 issue of Nature Biotechnology (vol 16), page 230,  
was a short piece by Jeffrey L. Fox, where there was a quote set off from
the body of the text in a large red font which said "'Biotechnology' has
been virtually dropped from the government's fiscal vocabulary" and I just 
had to find out what that was about. The article title is "BIO calls for
doubled NIH budget" but the article is mostly about drum-beating. An
article in _Science_ a few weeks ago says this doubled budget is still
very questionable and at best they are shooting for next years increase at
8%, which is barely above 7%, which is matching inflation (count your
overhead multiplier and 7% in science budgets is = to 3.5% in general
inflation) and nothing else. Where the quote came from was the final
paragraph: "Notably, not only do the voluminous federal budget documents
no longer highlight biotechnology programs as separate items -- an effort
that stopped several years ago -- but they also virtually drop this once
popular word from the government's fiscal vocabulary."

A bit more significant is a full length article "Before anyone knew the
future nature of biotechnology" by Vicki Glaser and John Hodgson (on page
239-242 of the same issue of the same journal) which traces the history of
23 biotechnology companies. Out of the 23 named and reviewed,

9, or about 40%, are defunct (disappeared). 
6 more (another 26%) were described with the words "plodding along" and
4 more were acquired or wholey managed by larger companies.

and at last, those which were described as being "successful" and "largely
independent" numbered only 3 (or about 13% of all). 

For those of you who remember one of my "career half-life" essays that I
posted here on SRC (and on my website), I found that tracing open journal
author citations even in pharma/biotech companies (compared to
academia) led to the disappearance of about half of the authors in less
than ten years. 

Another factor in career stability is that some of these companies
(like some ideas in pure, grant-funded, biomedical science) depend on the
_further_ development of ideas that may not "pan out." If the idea does
not pan out, AND becomes public knowledge, then the guys who have, say 5-7
or more years of _that_ specialized experience on their CVs will lose a
lot of currency in future job markets because that (highly specialized) 
expertise will be seen as "obsolete" or "no longer commercially viable"
and thus the career goes up in smoke possibly well before one is qualified
to apply for their social security or pension benefits.  This is another
factor which works against "networking" efforts unless one can work their
way towards tallents, experiences, or skills that are more broadly useful
(eg. law or medicine or a range of support functions [such as, for
example, regulatory affairs]) and do not become obsolete so quickly.

In grant-funded research, a similar effect takes place, but for different
reasons.  A new "hot topic" may become popular, but with flat grant
budgets, the effect will be to push a bottom-of-the-ladder topic into the
"unfunded" category, which will blow up the career of a scientist who is
absolutely connected to a position only with 100% of his/her salary coming
from the grant. A disaster for people at or near the bottom of the
priority scale can come about from a short term "hot topic" which goes
bust (eg. "Cold Fusion" in physics, or a "hot topic" in biomedical science
such as AIDS where in the last half year or so there has been a dramatic
decrease in the death rate from AIDS and thus future funding by NIH may be
subject to lobbying-induced shifts by other disease advocacy groups (eg.
Cancer, etc.). Also, I've noticed a lot more articles in _Science_
recently about malaria (and that NIH funding targeted to malaria has been
increasing in a linear high rate over the last few years).

Art Sowers
Written in the public interest, the essays on 
"Contemporary Problems in Science Jobs" are located at:
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Snail mail adr to me: P.O.Box 489, Georgetown, DE 19947    
Email:  arthures at  
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