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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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April 26, 2010

Report from C&E News

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Posted by Derek

Well, the first thing I can tell everyone is that I think the entire editorial staff at Chemical and Engineering News read every comment to this post. And that includes the nasty ones, for sure. The readership around here is a self-selected lot, and the commentors even more so, but the quick volume of responses got a lot of attention.

I noticed a lot of discussion around the "Do we really need more chemists?" theme. Readers will be interested to know that many people at the magazine share their uneasiness with some of the never-ending "scientist shortage" talk. The ACS's own figures (which many here seem to feel are too low) nevertheless show the highest unemployment rates among chemists they've ever shown.

Outside of the issues that came up here on the site, one of the things I suggested was more focus on smaller companies - both in terms of plain science/business news, but also with reference to where they come from. My point was that chemists reading C&E News see all sorts of items about various companies, but it's as if they've condensed out of the air. If there really is any sort of economic recovery coming on, I think that one of the best chances to lower our profession's jobless rate is through startup formation, and I told the people at the magazine that they should keep this in mind.

I wasn't in the discussion groups that touched on another theme that came up here in the comments, the long-running "Women in Chemistry" articles. And it's probably a good thing - I tend to be pretty much an eye-roller when it comes to corporate diversity programs, but I get the feeling that no one at the ACS (or its publications) feels safe doing so much as that, even if they were so inclined. For the record, I have no problem at all, of course, with women in chemistry, or anyone else in chemistry - it's just the let's-all-join-hands march-of-progress stuff that can get tedious. The people whose march through the ranks I most want to promote are the people who are good at it, whoever that might turn out to be.

One thing I found interesting is that the writers, although almost all of them have chemistry training, seem to feel apart from the actual business of chemistry. That's understandable, I suppose, because their profession is really journalism. I told them that not being a journalist made writing a blog a lot easier. . .

Comments (17) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Chemical News | Current Events


1. RandDChemist on April 26, 2010 8:41 AM writes...

Thanks for the update.

There is obviously a considerable amount of uncertainty and fear in the pharmaceutical sector. So people will go to what they know when they see no other options. That means blaming the evil MBAs, calling for a union, etc.

The truth, as always, is much more complicated than that. The whole story will not be known for years, if ever.

Right now what is important is that people are listened to in a thoughtful and considerable manner.

One of the things that troubles me are comments l9ike Kindler's that they are still looking for blockbusters. If one turns up, then great. Otherwise it is a continuation of the toxic thinking among corporate leaders.

One of the major issues that confronts pharma is that of innovation. How do we innovate? What works? What doesn't? What might? What is just a fad? What is enduring. It's complicated and highly nuanced. As I've done before, people should look at the work of Robert I. Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer.

I'm not saying that cuts are not needed. It is confusing and disconcerting to say that cuts will necessarily increase productivity, efficiency, etc., especially without a plan.

I don't think C & EN should be a mouthpiece for anyone. The science demands it.

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2. Jose on April 26, 2010 8:42 AM writes...

Just for the record, my highly disparaging comments were directed at the ACS brass and their nincompoop attitudes, and not at the hard-working professionals who get out (mostly) excellent content weekly. It's not their fault the ACS is kissing cousins with the ACC and pharma lobby....

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3. HelicalZz on April 26, 2010 9:01 AM writes...

It is interesting that the you note the writers feel somewhat apart from the 'business of chemistry'. I'm not so sure I'd say that many chemists i.e. scientists, are all that in tune with the 'business' of chemistry either.

Perhaps the magazine (which I honestly haven't read in a long time) needs to recruit more writers (and editors, no disrespect), not from the science side but from the business side of the industry. My recollection is that the trade mag was quite business focused, as opposed to a more science oriented mag, like say Genome Technology, but perhaps that has changed some.

Anyway, I guess my point is that the science people should understand the business operations better, and C&E News can help more in that area.


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4. anonymous on April 26, 2010 9:25 AM writes...

Looks like they forgot to answer my generous offer of becoming their exclusive Israel/Jordan/Egypt/south Europe chemistry reporter.

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5. Sili on April 26, 2010 10:04 AM writes...

one of the things I suggested was more focus on smaller companies - both in terms of plain science/business news, but also with reference to where they come from.
Not to kiss arse, but that dos sound like an excellent idea.

I'll put in a snide remark, though, about how deprivatised healthcare should make it 1) cheaper start a company, 2) less risky to take a job at a small company.

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6. D.J. on April 26, 2010 10:38 AM writes...

A question from a non-chem reader (pointed here by Instapundit to the 'Sand Won't Save You This Time' post): I know that this blog focuses on the pharmaceutical side of chemistry (and companies, employment, etc.), but what other parts of chemistry are there? Are they in as bad a shape as pharmaceutical companies? Are non-pharma jobs spread out throughout other industries (some in oil companies, some in plastics, some in metallurgy, etc.), so that they don't have a concentrated and visible effect?

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7. Cloud on April 26, 2010 2:21 PM writes...

I don't get C&E News, so I've never read their Women in Chemistry series. The utility of those sorts of things, though, is in the demonstration of what is possible to a group of people who often lack real life role models in chemistry.

I look forward to the day when such things are completely unnecessary, but I don't think we're there yet. For instance, I still hear far too many young women state that they are leaving science because they don't think they can combine a career in science with motherhood. This is absolute bunk, based on the fact that there are a fair number of scientists who are mothers. But we're scattered around and we aren't branded with big "M"s for Mother, so the myth persists. And some really quite good scientists quit the field because of these sorts of things.

I don't generally think quotas and other overt methods of increasing diversity are a good idea. But there are still structural and cultural inequities that can have a profound impact on career choices, and running some articles highlighting the achievements of women in the hard sciences is a fairly innocuous way to attempt to alleviate those.

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8. Sili on April 26, 2010 4:01 PM writes...

Another way of improving the lot of 'minorities', and by that I guess I mean demographics who're still underrepresented in the business is shaming of 'bigots'.

It is good to make rolemodels available to women, but it doesn't help much if they still have to fight tooth and nail to get fair acknowledgement - 'you have to work twice as much, twice as fast to get half the respect'. Some of this discrimination may still be overt, but a lot of it is internalised and that is an attitude we need to get rid of.

As for the overt discrimination this is where a union can do some good. At least in a civilised country.

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9. Anonymous on April 26, 2010 5:29 PM writes...

Derek, your last line nails the problem facing publishing today. Back when he was a business guy, Michael Bloomberg hired experts in business and banking, people who had been in the trenches and had experience, figuring it was easier to train them how to write, than to train a writer about business and banking.

He was right. Find experts who can write, and you've got a success. If you're staffed with writers who are only experts at writing, you either have a good literary magazine or a lousy trade mag.

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10. milkshake on April 26, 2010 6:29 PM writes...

LOL. Lets hope that over time the fragile egos at C&EN will be able to recover from the unfiltered feedback coming at them from the former ACS members.

It perhaps didn't make Derek look quite as a positive contribution to C&EN, but hopefully the irate comments here shook up some C&EN people from their lethargy: Sometimes the hardest thing is to see whats right under your nose. One look at the layoff figures, and the number of people who did not bother to renew their ACS membership, and see the rising subscription rates of ACS journals, and the obscene salary figures of top ACS execs - to realize that ACS has a serious image problem in the professional community. The editorial choices in C&EN do not really make the situation easier. You really don't need to be so servile

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11. Scichick on April 26, 2010 8:27 PM writes...

Re: Women in chemistry.

I second Cloud's comments.

The reason why women in chemistry is still an issue, to me, is because we are losing women at the highest level, be it in academia or industry. The statistics published from C&EN were actually quite useful (and a bit shocking) in demonstrating how the % women earning PhDs (not being that much lower than men) vs. the % women holding tenured professorship at top universities. If there is no issue of inequality at play, why the difference? Is it just that women like to do a PhD in chemistry "just for fun" and they quit their profession by choice upon graduation?

"The people whose march through the ranks I most want to promote are the people who are good at it, whoever that might turn out to be."

That's where the problem is. How do you define "good at it"? Unlike other professions like medicine, pharmacy or law, there is not a real professional certification process. Much of the success of a PhD chemist depends very heavily on subjective/environmental/opportunistic factors that may have absolutely nothing to do with the inherent ability of an individual. Particularly important to a PhD graduate student's success is how he/she is viewed by his/her advisor and peers. After all, it is extremely difficult to thrive in an environment where one is "the odd one out," and like Cloud said, it is still unclear whether women are judged equally compared to men on a professional level.

Perhaps running a "women in chemistry" type of article in CEN once in a while is not the most effective way of increasing the awareness of the issue, but until a more level playing field is available to women, that will always be an issue.

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12. SRC on April 26, 2010 10:35 PM writes...

I'll put in a snide remark, though, about how deprivatised healthcare should make it 1) cheaper start a company...

I want to live on your planet. It sounds much nicer than this one.

Here's a clue: reimbursement caps will vitiate the point of starting a company in the first place. There'll still be the considerable downside if the company fails, but modest upside if it succeeds. Only an idiot will start a company under those conditions.

On the other hand, you'll have a shot at becoming a CEO.

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13. Chemjobber on April 27, 2010 6:25 AM writes...


I may have my history incorrect, but much of the contraction in the number of companies and the number of jobs have already happened to the rest of the chemical industry (mid-80's? early '90s?) long before the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma's long recession probably started in ~2003 or so, and has accelerated since.

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14. Sili on April 27, 2010 9:46 AM writes...

I want to live on your planet.
It's more of an archipelago, but thanks. Permalink to Comment

15. Anonymous on April 27, 2010 1:12 PM writes...


In your opinion, what were the trends post recession for those industries?

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16. milkshake on April 28, 2010 2:42 AM writes...

Chemjobber, I would also put the start of the acute phase of pharma crisis at around 2003. When I joined SUGEN in Fall 2000, the jobs were not as hard to come by, and there were jokes about easily changing the employer in SSF without changing the parking lot... When the Pfizer closed us down in 2003 there wasa great deal of desperation because at the same time several companies had layoffs or closed down entirely and the bay Area was badly hit in particular - I remember seeing several spiffy modern buildings intended for biotech campus, just finished, standing empty at the time. Few of my colleagues ended up without a regular job for quite some time even back in 2003. At that time we thought the job market was as bad as it can concievably get. We were so spoiled, those were still fairly good times.

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17. Chemjobber on April 28, 2010 12:49 PM writes...

Anon1:12: Assuming you're asking what those industries will be like in the future, I dunno. But I assume they will grow, slowly, because they don't face the regulatory and patent pressures the pharmaceutical companies do.

Folks will need plastic and oil (and oil and plastic) for years to come. If they can vote themselves cheap drugs, they will.

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