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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Well Deserved | Main | Metathesis Nobel! »

October 3, 2005

Where Do the Good Ones Go?

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Posted by Derek

Speaking of all these Nobel-worthy chemists brings to mind a conversation I had with one of my colleagues recently. We were talking about all the huge unsolved medical problems out there, and wondering: what sort of talent are we attracting to solve them? How many of the really bright people are working on these things, as compared to all the other opportunities available?

As far as I can tell, most professions ask this question about themselves. The general feeling seems to be that the best people are always going somewhere else (usually said with a quick, worried look around). I know that the American Chemical Society has been beating the warning drum for as long as I've been a member, and I think that the other scientific societies have been doing the same. "Critical Shortage of XYZers Looms" is a perennial headline.

But still, you have to wonder. Math and Comp Sci departments have long figured that they lose a lot of good people to Wall Street and to high-tech startups. Where does the drug industry lose candidates to? You'd have to figure medical school, in some cases. But I think that the sorts of people who would be really, really good at this job would also be just as good in totally different areas. Every profession loses those folks, because there just aren't that many of them around.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets


1. daen on October 4, 2005 6:19 AM writes...

Math and Comp Sci departments have long figured that they lose a lot of good people to Wall Street and to high-tech startups

You're talking about the exodus from academia here, presumably. Certainly the math and CS people (and certain classes of engineer) who leave academia for Wall Street/the Square Mile/whereever are "lost" in the sense that souls are "lost", but those who join high-tech startups continue to be creative and inventive, presumably because the tools for doing CS R&D are relatively cheap, and the results come through relatively rapidly compared to chemistry and the life sciences.
Mind you, having just disparaged and discouraged financial quantative researchers around the world, don't forget there is a Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (not one of the original Nobel categories) which is a pretty prestigious prize to win. Merton and Scholes won it 1997 for Black and Scholes's work on pricing derivative instruments in 1973, built on Merton and Stephenson's earlier research, in which the Black-Scholes equation is "famously" stated for the first time.

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2. Tom Bartlett on October 4, 2005 9:27 AM writes...

A lot of chemists (though usually NOT the good ones) shift over to IP law, regulatory, or business after a while on the bench, because the bucks-to-effort ratio is FAR better. The ones who stay are often indian or chinese these days. On teh plus side, the quality of foreign-born chemists has improved a fair amount over the years.

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3. tom Bartlett on October 4, 2005 10:51 AM writes...

So what would it take for a Med Chemist to win the Nobel? Is it even POSSIBLE? Are we too "applied"?

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4. Fred on October 4, 2005 11:58 AM writes...

Some industries lose people, some throw them away. Around Seattle it seems the basic requirement to run a restaurant or a bed and breakfast is a degree in aeronautical engineering.

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5. Dave on October 4, 2005 1:55 PM writes...

Tom, I’m intrigued by your statement that the less able chemists are more likely to shift over to areas that have a higher bucks-to-effort ratio than benchwork. You seem to imply that ‘good’ chemists are willing to bypass better pay or willing to exert more effort. It would seem to me that anyone acting in their own self interest would seize these opportunities. Further it would seem that the more competent in the field would come across more of these opportunities. Therefore, it would seem logical to me that the most able chemists would eventually find the way to high bucks-to-effort jobs. So that would lead one to assume that either:

1) the best chemists eventually leave the bench.
2) the bench represents a higher bucks-to-effort ratio than you assume.

Could it be that the opportunities available at the bench for the ‘best’ chemists differ greatly from those who are less adept in the field? Otherwise, benchwork would be for suckers…which as a scientist myself I have a hard time believing…

I don’t necessarily have an answer here, but I see this sentiment a lot, and it sort of bothers me. Do I have better opportunities than others in my field, or am I simply overlooking those available elsewhere?

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6. LNT on October 4, 2005 3:10 PM writes...

The idea of "leaving the bench" to go to a higher paying job is a major tradeoff in my mind. Sure, you may make more money. But most scientists, myself included, entered the field because we love the creativity, freedom, and challenges associated with "real life" (benchtop) science. One can certainly use scientific knowledge in other fields (law, management, IT, etc) --- but the money wouldn't replace the fun involved in discovery chemistry. Nothing beats the feeling you get when you concieve of a molecule, make the molecule, send it for testing, and seeing it do what you want. I'd gladly take a slightly lower paying job in order to do what I really love: chemistry. Incidently, chemists aren't paid so badly in big pharma. Academia is another story...

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7. Still Scared of Dinosaurs on October 4, 2005 4:08 PM writes...

Isn't the "bucks-to-effort ratio" a function, at least in part, of the "results-to-effort ratio" and the "bucks-to-results ratio"? I'd think the former are higher for good chemists who will tend to gravitate towards increases in the latter when other conditions are right. For the others, the intellectual threshold to achieve remunerable results in "IP law, regulatory, or business" is lower than real science and therefore more attractive. There, I hope I made you all feel better about yourselves.

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8. Tom Bartlett on October 4, 2005 4:44 PM writes...

"But most scientists, myself included, entered the field because we love the creativity, freedom, and challenges associated with "real life" (benchtop) science." You're onto something. I'd rather drive bamboo shoots into my flesh than do patent law.

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9. Tom Bartlett on October 4, 2005 4:46 PM writes...

"For the others, the intellectual threshold to achieve remunerable results in "IP law, regulatory, or business" is lower than real science and therefore more attractive" True. But, in no way do I wish to imply these other endeavors aren't important.

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10. Jagan Mohan on October 4, 2005 11:24 PM writes...

How about the divide 'within' professions?

99% of Medical Graduates tend to go into clinical practice instead of dedicated research.

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11. Richard on October 4, 2005 11:56 PM writes...

Business can also involve a lot of creativity that a lot of people overlook. Everyone thinks of the corporate monolith and the shirt and tie. However entrepreneurship often involves coming up with a novel idea (creativity!) and a lot of nice hard analytical skills to see if your idea will work in a market.

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12. tim mayer on October 5, 2005 9:09 AM writes...

The joy of discovery can often be negated by a sales or marketing department that tells you an interesting line of investigation "has no value." A lot of us industrial chemists, the non-pharm ones at least, are starting to feel like trolls in a cave, toiling away on projects that can be canceled at the whim of some higher being. For this we spent all those years in college and in the lab, working our way up the hierarchy?

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13. Tom McEntee on October 5, 2005 11:44 AM writes...

Let's face it--the pharmaceutical and chemical industries are in the business of making a profit. They're not in the business of providing rewarding careers, higher salaries, or high-paying managerial and consulting scientist positions. From my perspective of 62+ years, we chemists should have been paid far more than we were getting...but unlike some trades, the supply of chemists exceeded the demand and companies ended up dictating the terms. After nearly 15 years in the industry, I left. For the past 20 years, I've been working in the national security arena. My lab work is confined to the family kitchen.

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14. patentobserver on October 5, 2005 3:41 PM writes...

Derek wrote: "We were talking about all the huge unsolved medical problems out there, and wondering: what sort of talent are we attracting to solve them?"
Far too few IMHO. I'd like to know what percentage of chemisty PhD's are even remotely oriented toward that goal. Seems far too many of us conned ourselves into believing that our personal (and our advisor's) research goals were what mattered. Maybe changing that is a place to start.

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15. Dave Eaton on October 5, 2005 9:05 PM writes...

I've been in industry for 2 years now following a post-doc. I'm in a non-pharma job, and I agonized over whether to pursue a job in academia. It really wasn't the money, though I no doubt do much better than I would have as an assistant prof at Wattsamatta U. I found something that made scientific and business sense.

I have a lot of freedom, much more than I had been led to expect by the constant droning on of both academics and friends in industry. That said, I second Tim Mayer's point about the hatchet falling on a favored project, seemingly from nowhere. Luckily we are small enough, and management smart enough, to communicate well. But it still sucks.

My workplace is dominated by electrical engineers, but we have a solid chemistry R and D department for a company of our size. I have a lot of freedom, much more than I had been led to expect by the constant droning on of both academics and others, and I do a lot of typical bench chemistry. But having the engineers at my disposal, if I treat them well, opens possibilities that I would never have imagined.

I love the chance to really interface with the other technical people in the firm to get new things done. It is a fact of life that if I am to advance, I'll have to leave the bench and start doing whatever it is that managers do. But I will hold it off and remain a 'troll in the cave' as long as I can.

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16. Anonymous on October 10, 2005 7:45 PM writes...

1) The "big" medical problems of our time, cancer, heart disease, lupus, viral infections, etc are unsolved because they are very difficult to solve. Not necessarily because there arent enough "smart" folks working on them. ie. biology is not like math, there might not actually be an answer.

2) Scientific progress, ie medical breakthroughs, are just as likely to come through dumb luck or chance as from having the most briliant mind thinking about them. Its about having larger numbers of scientists working, rather than having larger numbers of "smart" people working. In some respects, it might be better to have more people who are not all that careful, ie, more accidents = more progress.

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