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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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July 9, 2010

Lechleiter's Prescription for Science

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Posted by Derek

John Lechleiter of Eli Lilly has an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal on innovation in the US. Needless to say, he's worried:

A recent study ranked the U.S. sixth among the top 40 industrialized nations in innovative competitiveness, but 40th out of 40 in "the rate of change in innovation capacity" over the past decade. The ranking, published last year by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, measured what countries are doing—in higher education, investment in research and development, corporate tax rates, and more—to become more innovative in the future. The U.S. ranked dead last.

He goes on to say that we need a climate that appreciates new technology (which I certainly think we have), the financial system to support it (which is where he makes the case for favorable tax treatment), and the people who can do it. That's the longest single section of the whole piece:

The final and most important elements are the seeds of innovation, which equate to talented people and their ideas. Human beings—with their talent and energy, creativity and insights—are a priceless resource, but one that is woefully underdeveloped in this country.

There are three policies necessary to cultivate these seeds of innovation. First, with our kids falling further behind on international comparisons in education, we've got to get serious about broad improvement in science and math instruction in our grade schools and high schools.

Second, we need immigration laws that allow and encourage top scientists from other countries to choose to work in the United States. This does not entail drastic changes, but a sensible increase in visas for highly skilled immigrants and a shorter, simpler green-card application process.

Third, we need a well-funded basic research infrastructure within academic and government labs. What's required is not some new "Manhattan Project," but a long-term funding commitment necessary to attract more outstanding scientists to basic research and keep them engaged in productive work throughout their careers.

Well, there are going to be a lot of people reading this who will snort and say "Great, domestic science policy advice from Lilly, the company that's outsourcing everything short of what has to be picked up by a crane". And that call for better science education, together with the immigration reform paragraph, takes us into the "Danger! Undersupply of Scientists!" territory that drives many actual scientists crazy as they scan the employment ads and reformat their CVs.

I agree that science and engineering should be valued more in this country. But given our culture, what would make it so would be the perception that these fields are great places to have lucrative jobs, and that perception is currently taking an awful beating. Justifiably. So I'm not seeing this as a supply-of-scientists problem, as much as I see it as a shortage-of-ways-for-scientists-to-make-a-living one. . .

Comments (61) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | General Scientific News | Press Coverage


1. RB Woodweird on July 9, 2010 10:20 AM writes...

"First, with our kids falling further behind on international comparisons in education, we've got to get serious about broad improvement in science and math instruction in our grade schools and high schools."

Good luck with that. Our model of funding public education with local taxes and our cultural meme that it's cool to give Poindexter a wedgie is working against us.

"Second, we need immigration laws that allow and encourage top scientists from other countries to choose to work in the United States. This does not entail drastic changes, but a sensible increase in visas for highly skilled immigrants and a shorter, simpler green-card application process."

Bullcrap. We need to pay the scientists we have more and treat them better, otherwise you are working in opposition to your first objective.

"Third, we need a well-funded basic research infrastructure within academic and government labs. What's required is not some new "Manhattan Project," but a long-term funding commitment necessary to attract more outstanding scientists to basic research and keep them engaged in productive work throughout their careers."

Great, but you already want to flood the labor market with guys off the boat. Plus, we've blown our descretionary funds in Iraq and Afganistan.

Bottom line is he wants a horde of happy minimum wage science minions. Not going to happen.

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2. Jumbo on July 9, 2010 10:25 AM writes...

Right on Derek - More pap from 'scientist' managers who care nothing for the scientists whose compensation packages are conveniently transferred to Covance! The point about rate of innovation also is fallacious. If you are the biggest innovator, your rate will naturally fall. Pfizer's profits naturally grow at a much smaller rate than some small biotech's. Increasing a small number is easier than increasing a big number. I dare say that the top six companies in 'innovative competitiveness' all lie in the bottom 10 of 'rate of change of innovation.' The aim to nurture ways to think innovatively is admirable, but I wonder how much innovation a company like Lilly will sustain with no innovators in-house (unless you count as innovation ways to off-load R&D expenses!).

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3. Vader on July 9, 2010 10:29 AM writes...

So Lilly wants more scientists, but wants someone else to pay the costs of providing the necessary incentives? Well, who wouldn't?

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4. road on July 9, 2010 10:36 AM writes...

There was an article a few weeks ago that does an excellent job of debunking the myth of STEM undersupply in this country:

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5. matt on July 9, 2010 10:54 AM writes...

Couldn't agree more Derek...the problem lies within the financial incentives, or lack of, to become a scientist.

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6. Hap on July 9, 2010 11:02 AM writes...

I think we've got ways to make a living (or will), but they are/will be not very well paid (at least for the opportunity cost and education it takes to be eligible) and require lots of hours. It's the same problem that physical labor jobs have - there are lots of them, but no one wants to work for what the jobs pay (except people for whom crappy pay is better than nothing, or people who can't work elsewhere). In both cases, there's a gap between what employers are willing to pay (and the resultant perception of their fields by potential employees) and the people they want to fill those jobs, and the same solutions (immigration, gov't funding - without raising taxes, of course) suggested, and without awareness of the inconsistencies of the suggesters' positions (as is usual for people, I guess).

The other alternative methods to attract employees to science (or other jobs) at wages and benefits employers are willing to pay would involve lowering the benefits of unemployment (effectively making any job better than none), but I'm guessing that that would be even less popular than Lechleiter's (and others') current suggestions.

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7. Anonymous on July 9, 2010 11:04 AM writes...

What Lilly (and industry) wants is a ready and cheap supply of disposable scientists below 40. Won't be long before even the foreigners catch on to this and don't want to work for US companies due to the very limited future offerred.

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8. alig on July 9, 2010 11:09 AM writes...

Lechleiter should go outsource himself.

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9. Anonymous on July 9, 2010 11:33 AM writes...

I've listened to public pronouncements on science and engineering manpower for fifty years. It's all been rubbish. For what it's worth, though, I suggest you ask "Now Mr Lechleiter, what subjects are your children studying?"

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10. ronathan richardson on July 9, 2010 11:46 AM writes...

I really don't get why we listen to CEO's of massive and slowly declining corporations describing how to create jobs and boost the economy. Growth doesn't come from big pharma, which seems to only cut jobs, not add them. It comes from creation of new companies and new industries that didn't exist before. So I certainly agree with the tax incentives and such for the growth-bolstering startups, and helping them get to be big. But why we should support the big boys doesn't make sense to me.

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11. MedChem on July 9, 2010 11:54 AM writes...

"The only policy required to create innovation is meaningful compensation of those doing the innovating (the "priceless resources of above"): make a career in science enticing and you'll get good people. "

You'd think this'd be obvious to the poeple in charge. Why they don't understand this simple truth is totally beyond me. Or maybe they do and are simply pretending in order to push certain agendas.

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12. Bombauer on July 9, 2010 12:33 PM writes...

Well we prayed for the end to the oil spill, so I guess we could pray for innovation.

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13. Jim Hu on July 9, 2010 12:33 PM writes...

#4 skimmed the link. Interesting to think about the connection between the longer academic career path stats cited and the desire expressed in earlier posts here to reduce the number of less significant publications.

I think there is something to the Lechleiter argument that what we need is long-term commitments in the government-funded parts of research (As an academic I have, of course, a massive COI here!). IMO, though, it's not a matter of more funding... it's a matter of predictable funding that might dampen the boom and bust cycles.

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14. silicon scientist on July 9, 2010 12:51 PM writes...

"Human beings..are a priceless resource."

I think my salary says otherwise. *rim shot*

Compare and contrast this with what Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel, recently wrote:

I don't think I agree with Grove's prescriptions, but his diagnosis is spot on.

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15. anchor on July 9, 2010 12:52 PM writes...

This "f....." up guy has a gall to tell us what is ailing the innovation in the USA. This from an executive and an organic chemist by training who did the greatest damage to the pharmaceutical companies along with his cohorts as if there was no tomorrow. He is not credible enough to make these statements. I still see vibrant innovation in other spheres (electronics, IT etc.) but certainly not in pharmaceutical industries. We could go on and on discussing this and that as the reasons for the lack of innovation. The steps that he and other took to outsource, will not inspire any innovation on those who are still left in the pharmaceutical R and D. The fact of the matter is in a current climate there is lot of stress (and fear too) that people are more worried as to if their job is safe. Innovation, I guarantee will not certainly take place in China and India as they are not risk takers.

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16. CMCguy on July 9, 2010 1:05 PM writes...

Good post Derek and I will have to read the op-ed to get full context but sounds like the same theme and agenda Lechleiter has promoted before. There are elements of probable truth and some potential directions but does not speak to what Lilly is doing to be more innovative and decisions to outsourcing (unless is positioning that Lilly can't find and attract the skilled workforce required therefore must outsource).

Jumbo is correct that measures of innovation may be flawed in relative percents where any innovation in place of low to modest accomplishments which have a greater impact than advancements in place that are already established. At the same time I think there is probably more diversity in areas of innovation so is harder to constantly increase or sustain as people move to new fields that may take a while to development.

I think is correct that there is disproportionate value for scientists and may be why so many complaints here about MBAs as although some will argue going in to business side seems to be an easier and quicker and even more stable path.

I also wonder if dumping much more money into academia and government labs will lead to significantly greater innovation. There are some fundamental problems that already inhibit such places to engage in work that might really be innovation then always have problems in getting others to expand ideas, industry in particular, in translations useful products. Everyone wants to bet on the sure thing but most innovations can only be judged retrospectively once they have been realized. Most of doing science is about experimenting and learning from failures but pushing on till achieve something (which could be different from what set out to do in the first place) so if keep a tally of only successes then can be discouraging. That may be another reason science devalued because goes against the instantaneous satisfaction our culture demands.

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17. Nick K on July 9, 2010 1:15 PM writes...

Lechleiter seems unaware of the irony of bemoaning the "shortage" of scientists while, at the same time, his company destroys the careers of thousands of technical people. With a PhD in Chemistry one is treated no better than a peon by Big Pharma.

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18. anon the II on July 9, 2010 1:18 PM writes...

I think John Lechleiter was once a well respected scientist and administrator, both within and outside of Lilly. However, something has obviously happened to him. He is now clearly delusional. It is very difficult to reconcile the way that his company is run with his recent speeches. Maybe he isn't really in control and this is his way of crying out for help. It's very bizarre.

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19. non-pharma chemist on July 9, 2010 1:53 PM writes...

Just another excellent example of why I don't subscribe to the Wall Street Journal.

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20. anon the III on July 9, 2010 2:00 PM writes...

I really wish this man would keep his trap shut and keep his soliloquies out of the media. It makes me highly annoyed to read anything he says.

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21. Skeptic on July 9, 2010 3:04 PM writes...

What this country requires is Innovation Performance Accounting so that risk assessement can be done on innovation processes. I hired or what?

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22. CB on July 9, 2010 3:07 PM writes...

Currently the best and brightest are flocking to the finance industry. Despite the financial crisis, the field still offers extraordinary compensation.

It comes down to money, colleges are far more expensive, grants are less available, so students today have less willingness to jump into riskier fields.

Imagine you are a Harvard undergrad looking at 100k or more in debt.

option A: chemistry -requires at least 5 additional year of work for PhD and postdoc then you might land a job with 75K starting salary.

option B: business -on campus recruiters are flocking to hire you with a starting salary of 75K + bonus, after 4 years on wall street you return for 2yrs MBA 150K salary + serious bonus money.

Personally after a decade watching my 401K shrivel, I long for a return to the days when banking and finance jobs were primarily boring jobs with only above average salaries.

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23. Skeptic on July 9, 2010 5:22 PM writes...

Since the mission of the Harvard economist is to destroy the nation state, I guess if you want to be a chemist you have to go to Harvard.

See, whoever is closest to the Firehose (money creation) gets to eat.

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24. Jeff Howbert on July 9, 2010 5:33 PM writes...

In my experience (as a research manager in small biotechs, not as CEO of a large pharma), today’s lack of innovation in pharma boils down to the risk aversion of those who control the purse strings. Venture capital pretty much refuses to support anything preclinical anymore, and big pharma isn’t interested in partnering unless it’s already in the clinic (or just about). I haven’t seen the inside of a big pharma research operation in a while, but from what I hear, it’s the same game there: attempts to systematically reduce risks by industrializing discovery processes, and lots of fast following on established targets. Unless someone comes up with a new model for financing pharma discovery work, innovation as we’ve known it is doomed.

Personally, I’ve thrown in the towel. As of next week, I will reduce my time doing small molecule drug development to one day a week, and will increase my time at doing computational biology and biomarker discovery to three days a week. Starting a new career at 55 means giving up a lot of accumulated earning power, but otherwise it’s all upside: I’m not frustrated about funding (it’s mostly NIH grants), and every day is a new adventure intellectually.

But if you happen to know anyone who wants to develop the best small-molecule TLR antagonists on the planet, let me know … I can put them in touch with the guy who invented them.

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25. Skeptic on July 9, 2010 6:06 PM writes...

Computationalists Uber Alles!

Atomist: "All I want for compensation is a listeria filled ham sandwich and I'm still too expensive *%#$^#%@@%!"

Harvard Economist: "So you atomists can still discover. How are you going to prove to the world (aka the FDA) that your molecule is more effective than whats already out there without costing a bloody fortune??? Be gone with you"

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26. NHR_Guy on July 9, 2010 6:09 PM writes...

Thats rich....does his brain hear what his mouth is saying?

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27. frequent visitor on July 9, 2010 6:42 PM writes...

I am probably echoing earlier comments...but it is RATE of change in innovation. Our innovation level is already pretty high...I am actually more concerned about the US being 6th in innovative competitiveness.

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28. 7 on July 9, 2010 8:13 PM writes...

When you outsource you simply place an order. You lose all innovation on the ground floor (what counts).

It's hubris of upper management and project managers who forgot that discoveries and innovation is seldom a top down process.

Companies have stopped trying to train and develop a good R&D workforce, there is no young ambitious chemist that says I think you are wrong and I am going to work the extra 4 hours to make this compound.

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29. Jose on July 9, 2010 8:15 PM writes...

The sick sick irony of Lechleiter's nonsense is unreal- the Lilly-Covance "let's outsource-our-employees-in-our own-labs-on-the-same-projects" paradigm is probably the greediest, most underhanded tactic we've seen yet. Staggering self-delusion.

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30. Tok on July 9, 2010 8:31 PM writes...

There's also the assault on science in this country that colors our kids' view of it from an early age. Re: evolution and climate change.

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31. MedInformaticsmdMD on July 9, 2010 8:38 PM writes...

In Mar. 2009 I received an email solicitation from Lilly that read exactly like this: (I added the 'sic's, of course):

“Your Help Is Requested for a Eli Lilly Career Opportunity! I am a member of the Staffing Team at Eli Lilly. I were referred to me as person who specializes in pharmaceutical based informatics (sic). I wanted to reach out to me (sic), to see if you maybe able (sic) to recommend anyone that could qualify for the below position.

I was not exactly inspired by this solication, perhaps written by one of the "highly skilled immigrants" Lechleiter covets.

I suggest if Mr. Lechleiter wishes to close America’s innovation gap, he spend some time away from the executive digs and review some of the job solicitations his company sends out.

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32. MedInformaticsmdMD on July 9, 2010 8:40 PM writes...

#31 Oops, forgot two sic's:

“Your Help Is Requested for a Eli Lilly (sic) Career Opportunity!"

... to recommend anyone that could qualify for the below position (sic)

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33. Pete on July 10, 2010 3:34 AM writes...

Innovation requires that folk be able to take a long term view. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is something that scientists in Big Pharma are becoming less able to do. Whenever I hear people bemoaning the state of innovation in the US, I think of the efforts to introduce Creation 'Science' to the science classroom. Not sure if this represents a pathology in its own right or symptom of something else but it should be a concern.

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34. Anonymous on July 10, 2010 3:40 AM writes...

Well as someone who actually did invent a drug for big pharma (plus three Phase II compounds for other targets) you can guess what happened to me !
Redundancy of course, no bonuses along the way and and no share whatsover in the profit. So go tell that to a kid starting out and they'll jump for a career in finance every time where at least there's some personal reward if they're successful (and often even when they're not).

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35. Petros on July 10, 2010 5:34 AM writes...

Pfizer has done the same. There are labs full of chemists at Sandwich who are employed by Peakdale rather than Pfizer.

With the demise in the UK of pharma R&D (Merck Harlow, GSK Harlow, AZ Charnwood, Merck Newhouse etc) Peakdale now employs more R&D chemists in the UK than most (all?) pharma companies

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36. newnickname on July 10, 2010 9:34 AM writes...

(I haven't read all comments yet or the original op-ed, so if this is repetitious, I apologize ...)

I think that almost everyone reading this blog in the US is surrounded by an abundance - no, an OVERabundance - of innovative people and ideas (as well as a bunch of dead heads, some of them visa-bearing imports). I can think back over the years to ideas I've heard (or sometimes proposed myself) that were flat out rejected or otherwise unfunded, unsupported and unrewarded. Some of these innovative ideas were eventually reduced to practice and disclosed by others, not always in the US, and sometimes MANY YEARS after the original proposal.

Several years ago, the then-editor of Technology Review opined that the US does NOT have an innovation shortage, it has a shortage of a willingness to support and promote implementation of innovative ideas.

Back to Eli Lilly and Lechleiter, my experience with Big Pharma and biotech is that there are a couple of "designated innovators" who are usually successful self-promoters and salesmen. (Some that I have known were terrible scientists with poor knowledge of the literature and an ability to misrepresent facts [lie] in order to promote their own agenda.) This blog frequently provides testament to a lot of BAD IDEAS that get sold to managers or investors and get funded to advanced stages before they fail miserably.

This blog (and no other blog or publication that I know of) documents the absolutely incredible ideas generated here (in the US) that wither and die on the vine, often along with the careers of the innovative thinkers who came up with them.

This topic (and people like Lechleither) is making me feel ill and wishing, once again, that I had never chosen to seek a career in science.

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37. newnickname on July 10, 2010 9:53 AM writes...

As an afterthought on the Lilly / Lechleiter piece:

Eli Lilly launched "InnoCentive" in 2001 ( It was actually an innovative idea.

However, it did nothing to fund, support or promote innovative solutions. It was set up just to pay for previously proven technology that was not readily available to them in the public domain. A solution had to be reduced to practice, not merely a proposed solution in need of $10k-$40k of research funds. It was Lilly, once again, trying to buy up research on the cheap: let someone else pay for the research so Lilly can pay pennies on the dollar (or pennies on the zloty) for the results and not have to pay their own scientists to solve the problems.

(One "winner" that I vaguely recall -- a heterocycle synthesis? -- came from work that had been done in a Polish chem lab in the 1950s or 1960s, paid for by the Polish government.)

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