My husband sent me an article in Bloomberg Reports about how the lack of US students going into science is seriously hurting the biotech industray and their ability to both hire skilled workers and bring new products to market. Among other things, the article stated:

Genentech, Gilead Struggle to Hire as Biotech Booms

By Luke Timmerman

March 30 (Bloomberg) — Biotechnology companies including Genentech Inc. and Gilead Sciences Inc. can’t find enough scientists to hire, threatening to slow one of the industries bolstering U.S. job growth.

Genentech’s workforce doubled in the past four years to 10,500 and may rise 11 percent this year — if managers can locate biomedical scientists. Gilead bought two companies last year, partly to get 200 skilled employees.

The biotech business, which generated $51 billion in U.S. sales in 2005, is one of the fastest-growing U.S. industries, creating 40,000 jobs from 2001 to 2004, according to Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Genentech says the lack of qualified applicants means the company is “scrambling” to grow. A drop over the past decade in the percentage of U.S. college graduates pursuing science is making the task harder.

“The big failing is in education, not only post-grad but also undergraduate, and even K-12,” said Robert Reich, the former U.S. Labor secretary who is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in an e-mail. “We do a lousy job of training our kids to be scientists.

Gilead, based in Foster City, California, says it must expand its workforce by about 10 percent this year from 2,515 to deliver on investor expectations that revenue grow by about a third. Analysts estimated Gilead’s sales, which more than tripled in the past four years, will rise 30 percent in 2007, based on the average of 28 estimates in a Bloomberg survey.

Genentech, in South San Francisco, California, needs to recruit more than 1,000 people annually to keep up the momentum of the past three years, when revenue tripled to $9.28 billion, company officials said. Sales will rise 26 percent this year, based on the average estimate of 30 analysts.

“We’re hiring as many good people as we can out there, but there’s not an infinite number of terrific people,” said Art Levinson, chief executive officer of Genentech, at an investor conference.

Biotech companies, which have produced some of the world’s best-selling drugs to treat cancer, arthritis and AIDS, have long complained of a shortage of available scientists. Companies such as Genentech and Amgen Inc., the world’s biggest biotech company, have given millions of dollars to schools for science education.

Biotech companies that can’t hire in the U.S. will recruit foreign workers or open research centers overseas, said Reich, the former Labor secretary. U.S. workers stand to miss out because the average biotech job pays $65,775 a year, compared with $39,003 in the overall private sector, according to the April 2006 study by Battelle.

Gilead and Genentech declined to say how many jobs they are filling with foreign-born or educated workers. Gilead has about a third of its workforce outside the U.S., and the company is expanding in Europe, spokeswoman Erin Edgley said.

“It’s hard to find enough people to grow the way we want,” said John Milligan, chief operating officer of Gilead, the world’s second-biggest seller of HIV drugs behind London- based GlaxoSmithKline Plc.

I thought this was a great article, so I wrote to the reporter, who immediately wrote back. Here’s part of what I said:

Luke,

I just read your story, “Genentech, Gilead Struggle to Find Scientists as Biotech Booms� and I had to comment. My scientist husband just sent it to me. He manages patents for a Maryland Biotech, I am a biotech patent agent in a law firm.

Both of us were active scientists (virus, HIV and cancer researchers) in the early 90’s and managed to land rare faculty positions at the University of Rochester after our 6 years of Postdocs at Yale. This was also at a time when biotech and medical research funding was severely tapering off, particularly for new scientists. Funds that were going out in grants were predominantly going to big labs, and postdocs were becoming a semi-permanent situations. Salaries were from $17K to about $30K for experienced PhD’s. While at Univ. of Rochester, the “Hillaryâ€? health care plan was being actively discussed and NY State, like others were scrambling to conform to what they thought was going to be the new health care payer system. Of course, the health care plan didn’t happen, but state funding for research positions at teaching hospitals had already dried up. So did NIH funding. We both went to jobs at the US Patent Office, who benefited from the huge influx of unemployed (or vastly underemployed) bioscience Ph.Ds. … Neither one of us has looked back, but we both miss the lab. Once a scientist, always a scientist, but you can never go back.

[At least the American public got their training dollars back]

Any time that science funding dries up, a whole generation of scientists are lost. Due to the tight funding picture, older scientists aren’t mentoring as well as they used to – they aren’t finding jobs for their postdocs, who may be competition in future grant cycles.

I could go on, but I thought you may want to hear from someone who has been taken out of the trenches by failed science policies of the last 20 years. I’m afraid it will get worse.

Thanks for the article; I hope someone who can help change current policy is reading it.

Regards,

Mary

Mr. Timmerman wrote back:

I wonder too about what it’s like to work in such a volatile industry, where scientists get hired and fired all the time when projects fail at small biotech companies. It’s not for the faint of heart.–Luke

What is the point here? Several – one close to lisab’s heart – we need to do a better job of exciting kids about science.

Second, we need to have a steady funding stream to keep those kids interested in science careers. President BUsh started out pretty well – putting huge increases into the National Institutes of Health funding, but that has been frozen for the last several years.

Third, the Clinton’s are the reason my husband and I aren’t in science anymore, so all the liberals out there that think that Democrats support science and Republicans don’t are only getting half the picture. All politicians like to talk aobut how they support science. They just don’t – and neither do Republicans.

Fourth, a public who has just spent the last month hanging onto every last detail of Anna Nicole Smiths’ life, but has no idea who was instrumental in developing therapies for glaucoma, Herpes and HIV, need to let kids who like science and engineering aren’t nerds because they would rather participate in a legos robotic competition instead of their school’s Lacrosse team.

[Glaucoma: Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, an African American who had to get his Doctoral degree in Europe becasue of US discrimination in the 1930’s; Herpes: Nobel Prize winners Gertrude Elion and Dr. George Hitchings (both of whom I have had the honor to meet); HIV: Drs. Luc Montegnier and Robert Gallo]

We need to get our priorities straight – then the politicians will start listening.

The article link is here.

p.s. after the “Dora” post below, I thought I would TRY to raise the level of discourse here! ;)