In the wake of continued expansion of medicinal chemistry efforts in China, a discussion between me and some of my colleagues at work had me sticking to my positions: (1) Scientific outsourcing is not going to go away, although it may move from country to country as costs change. (2) If you’re going to stay employed as a medicinal chemist in a high-wage area like the US, you have to bring something that can’t be purchased so easily overseas.
We got to discussing what that something is. One position was that it could be fast in-house turnaround time, but while true, that one makes me uneasy. It is easier to run a fast-moving project with in-house chemistry, because you can react more quickly to changes. The cycle time for stuff that’s being done in India and China is always going to be longer. But I expect that the outsourcing outfits are working on that problem, too, in order to bring in more business. So if you’re going to compete with them just on the basis of turnaround, you’re saying that you’ll always be able to make the compounds quickly enough to justify your higher salary. Not, I think, necessarily a safe bet.
I’d rather not try to outdo the low-margin people at their own game. I held out for the high-wage advantages being things like idea generation, the ability to take on harder chemistry that doesn’t lend itself as well to making libraries of compounds, and the advantages of real-time interaction with the biologists, PK, and formulations people. You’ll note that all of these are harder than cranking out methyl-ethyl-butyl-futile analog lists. That’s outsourcing in a nutshell: the easy stuff can be done more cheaply somewhere else, so the hard stuff is going to be left for us. We’d better get used to it, and fast. (Some of that hard stuff will eventually be done offshore as well, but it’ll be more expensive to do, intrinsically, and offshore wages in general will have risen by then. The big cost savings will be at the margin, for the routine work, and I expect other countries to rise up and take business away from India and China as their economies improve).
A few more points: I get a fairly constant stream of complaints about the whole business of outsourcing, but I have to say that I don’t see the point of many of them. I mean, I understand why people are upset, but I don’t see what complaining about it is supposed to lead to. What are we going to do, lobby for a law that forbids any aspect of drug discovery to take place outside our borders? Whether you think that’s a good idea or not, it’s not going to happen, any more than we’re going to do the same thing for clothing, cars, or candy bars. If it’s feasible and effective to do something more cheaply, companies will do it more cheaply. ‘Twas ever thus.
It’s true that there’s room to argue about how appropriate all the chemistry outsourcing is. Some of it is surely being misused, and there are surely some companies that are (or will try) outsourcing too much of their expertise, then ending up less effective than they would have been. Trends are taken to extremes, before things settle back. But things are never going to settle back to the pre-outsourcing employment situation for chemists. For better or worse – and I still think that overall, it’s for better – industrial science can now be found (and contracted for) around the globe.