About this Author
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

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« A New Journal (With Bonus Elsevier-Bashing) | Main | AstraZeneca Cuts Again »

April 12, 2012

A Federation of Independent Researchers?

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

I've had an interesting e-mail from a reader who wants to be signed as "Mrs. McGreevy", and it's comprehensive enough that I'm going to reproduce it in full below.

As everyone but the editorial board of C&E News has noticed, jobs in chemistry are few and far between right now. I found your post on virtual biotechs inspiring, but it doesn't look like anyone has found a good solution for how to support these small firefly businesses until they find their wings, so to speak. Lots of editorials, lots of meetings, lots of rueful headshaking, no real road map forward for unemployed scientists.

I haven't seen this proposed anywhere else, so I'm asking you and your readership if this idea would fly:

What about a voluntary association of independent research scientists?

I'm thinking about charging a small membership fee (for non-profit administration and hard costs) and using group buying power for the practical real-world support a virtual biotech would need:

1. Group rates on health and life insurance.

How many would-be entrepreneurs are stuck in a job they hate because of the the health care plan, or even worse, are unemployed or underemployed and uninsurable, quietly draining their savings accounts and praying no one gets really sick? I have no idea how this would work across state lines, or if it is even possible,but would it hurt to find out? Is anyone else looking?

2. Group rates on access to journals and library services.

This is something I do know a bit about. My M.S. is in library science, and I worked in the Chemistry Library in a large research institution for years during grad school. What if there were one centralized virtual library to which unaffiliated researchers across the country could log in for ejournal access? What if one place could buy and house the print media that start-ups would need to access every so often, and provide a librarian to look things up-- it's not like everyone needs their own print copy of the Canada & US Drug Development Industry & Outsourcing Guide 2012 at $150 a pop. (But if 350 people paid $1 a year for a $350/yr online subscription . . . )

Yes, some of you could go to university libraries and look these things up and print off articles to read at home, but some of you can't. You're probably violating some sort of terms of service agreement the library and publisher worked out anyway. It's not like anyone is likely to bust you unless you print out stacks and stacks of papers, but still. It's one more hassle for a small company to deal with, and everyone will have to re-invent the wheel and waste time and energy negotiating access on their own.

3. How about an online community for support and networking-- places for blogs, reviews, questions, answers, exchanges of best practices, or even just encouragement for that gut-wrenching feeling of going out on your own as a new entrepreneur?

4. What sort of support for grantwriting is out there? Is there a hole that needs to be filled?

5. How about a place to advertise your consulting services or CRO, or even bid for a contract? Virtual RFP posting?

6. Would group buying power help negotiate rates with CROs? How about rates for HTS libraries, for those of you who haven't given up on it completely?

Is there a need for this sort of thing? Would anyone use it if it were available? How much would an unaffiliated researcher be willing to pay for the services? Does anyone out there have an idea of what sort of costs are involved, and what sort of critical mass it would take to achieve the group buying power needed to make this possible?

I'd be happy to spark a discussion on what a virtual biotech company needs besides a spare bedroom and a broadband connection, even if the consensus opinion is that the OP an ill-informed twit with an idea that will never fly. What do you need to get a virtual biotech started? How do we make it happen? There are thousands of unemployed lab scientists, and I refuse to believe that the only guy making a living these days from a small independently-funded lab is Bryan Cranston.

A very worthy topic indeed, and one whose time looks to have come. Thoughts on how to make such a thing happen?

Comments (59) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Development | General Scientific News | The Scientific Literature


1. DJ DrZ on April 12, 2012 7:04 AM writes...

Huzzah! I am in, where do I sign up? A very similar phenomenon is occuring for consultants, where they are banding together to encourage synergies and become one stop shops. As a consultant, my major problem right now is accessing journals and the most recent research. This would be great.

Permalink to Comment

2. Rick Wobbe on April 12, 2012 7:24 AM writes...

Thank you "Mrs. McGreevy" for taking the time post this idea and Derek for sharing it! Definitely not the idea of a twit, it has the bones of a good idea that deserves a good brainstorming, to which I'd be delighted to contribute. Even if it doesn't lead to a venture that would have me as a member, helping set it up would be time well-spent.

Permalink to Comment

3. SP on April 12, 2012 7:33 AM writes...

I think massbio does some of that for startups in new england, at least some of the purchasing things.

Permalink to Comment

4. A Nonny Mouse on April 12, 2012 7:35 AM writes...

Strangely enough, I had a meeting last week in Cambridge about a similar scheme here in the UK which we are trying to start; a mixture of small labs with independent areas of expertise coupled with various consultants with their specialised areas. Together we hope to be able to offer a full range of chemical services at extremely competitive prices with sufficient number of people of the right calibre to attract the larger players who might otherwise go to China for their services.

We have another meeting at the end of this month to firm things up further with one very big player in the UK biotech field having expressed his interest to join.

Permalink to Comment

5. Chemjobber on April 12, 2012 7:58 AM writes...

I think the journal access idea is fantastic.

Permalink to Comment

6. Rick Wobbe on April 12, 2012 8:01 AM writes...

In the interest of sparking discussion of the practicalities, I'll throw out two items you would need to clarify early:

1. What would differentiate this from other initiatives that might offer clients something similar? e.g. disease/patient organizations (like CF), big CROs (like Quintiles), nascent in-house programs (like screening and animal facilities some universities are building), and other consulting groups formed by "early-retirees" from big pharma (you find these in NJ and NC, for example).

2. What's the critical mass of associates (or "employees") you need to get the buying power you need with CROs etc. and how will you achieve that critical mass?

Permalink to Comment

7. Anonymous on April 12, 2012 8:04 AM writes...

This is the foundation of the Guild we chemists (and biologists) should have formed years ago. I would gladly pay 2X the cost of ACS dues for the privilege to join such a guild.

Permalink to Comment

8. RD on April 12, 2012 8:16 AM writes...

Sign me up.

Permalink to Comment

9. Luysii on April 12, 2012 8:16 AM writes...

I really don't want this to sound snotty, but people in my entering class in chemistry grad school 52 years ago at Harvard had no trouble finding and keeping academic positions (not sure about industrial positions as it was assumed back than that newly minted PhD's would research and teach).

I'm well aware of the cries of pain on this site and elsewhere as big Pharma downsizes R&D (particularly chemists). I've got a whole series of posts on why this is happening (essentially because drug discovery is very hard). Basically we are very far from understanding the nuts and bolts of the system we're trying to manipulate with drugs. For 22 posts on the subject see

For reasons known only to themselves the Harvard Chemistry Department is having an alumni day on Friday the 13th (when else?) for anyone who ever received a graduate degree from them. I'm planning to go. Hopefully I'll be able to find out how the recent Masters and PhD's from fair Harvard are doing in the wider world and if their experience is the same as those reported here.

Stay tuned

Permalink to Comment

10. RD on April 12, 2012 8:23 AM writes...


I hate to say this, but we should have a meeting about it. Either online or in person. Appoint some a temporary governing body, project teams and project team leaders.

One other are that needs attention is the high cost of proprietary modeling software. Can we propose an alternative business model to software vendors?

One other thing, can we encourage researchers to move back to the Midwest to minimize costs? I mean, do we really need to be located in Massachusetts and New Jersey when it's much cheaper to live and work in Michigan or the Ohio River valley? There's this thing called the Internet...

Permalink to Comment

11. bbooooooya on April 12, 2012 8:26 AM writes...

Though decreasing, rapidly, in size there are similar organizations today that bring together groups of scientists to perform research in the hope of creating useful drugs---and also cures for scourges like indigestion (which sounds more serious if you give it a fancy name and acronym like GERD), restless leg syndrome, erectile dysfunction, and micro-narcolepsy (those split seconds where you fall asleep while awake when your eyes close involuntarily). These organizations provided healthcare, access to journals, lab supplies, and even a pay check.

The guild idea likely has merit, but hard to say if it would have the size and scope to get potential drugs to a stage where actual companies are interested. Sounds like a great opportunity for pharms to pay even less for R&D, though that seems to be how the world is going.

Amazing that Instagram was bought for $1 billion 2 years after starting....Now that's a business!

Permalink to Comment

12. Ellen Clark on April 12, 2012 8:46 AM writes...

With all the brain power out there amongst the scientists it would seem that an idea like this might just work. Here on Eastern Long Island our local farmers belong to such a group. They can get group health insurance, cheaper gasoline, equipment,seeds,fertilizers and even clothing. They receive help with government red tape and tax issues. Contractors have similar models. So why not scientists? Sounds like a great plan and I hope something comes of it.

Permalink to Comment

13. Dr Jimbo on April 12, 2012 8:56 AM writes...

Sounds interesting. As a scientist in a small CRO with limited lab facilities, this could be very useful. And the journal access aspect would be a good starting point to see how it works.
@ A Nonny Nouse - if you can stretch to including members from Ireland, I would be interested in talking to you about this.

Permalink to Comment

14. exGlaxoid on April 12, 2012 8:58 AM writes...

I would love to see something like this as well. It would be nice is the ACS was actually a place to find/start/support such a group, but I haven't seen much of that there. I know a number of independent scientists, some of which had small companies, but the market has beaten all but a few into submission.

It used to be possible to start a small company in the US, but now the regulatory burden is very tough. If you think getting journals is tough, try finding a way to dispose of waste that meets all rules and laws.

But I would welcome such an opportunity. There is a similar concept for machine shops that are open to independent inventors, hobbiests, and tinkerers, we just need to find a way to help scientists. It would be nice if universities took better advantage of this resource, but they are all broke right now, so you would have to have funding.

Permalink to Comment

15. A Nonny Mouse on April 12, 2012 9:24 AM writes...

Dr Jimbo

One of the BD people trying to pull this together is from NI, so it would not be too much of a stretch given that that there are some US consultants interested. Pity we are not in Wales as a certain well known biotech man from that country has managed to get £50m from the assembly to fund biotech start-ups there!

I'll pass your company details on to the organisers.

Permalink to Comment

16. AnonChemist on April 12, 2012 9:25 AM writes...

Suggestion: call the organization "Society for Chemistry in America" (SCA) = the opposite of ACS.

Permalink to Comment

17. Biotechtranslated on April 12, 2012 9:37 AM writes...

I agree with #6, this needs to be fleshed out somewhat.

1. Buying power with CROs? From what I know, they have pretty thin margins to begin with, so you would likely not have much wiggle room.

2. I like the idea of the journal access, HOWEVER, you'll pay handsomely for such access. It's no different than a large corp or large library. You have 300 people in your organization? You need to buy a group license.

This also seems similar to a lot of the start-up incubators out there. Get some entrepreneurs and support them. How would you compete with that?


Permalink to Comment

18. pc on April 12, 2012 10:11 AM writes...

As a small US CRO mainly doing catalog/custom synthesis, we'll be glad to join such a consortium. But just don't expect us to get close to the rate that Chinese CROs offer, even with group rate. We have to make a living here too ^_^. And there's the saying that you get what you pay for.

Though we do see some comeback from US customers for our services, those oversea companies still put great pressure on us. The projects we see coming back are mainly technically difficult and/or really urgent ones so I guess maybe sometimes these clients are fed up with the delivery problems with these kinds of projects.

Permalink to Comment

19. Dr Jimbo on April 12, 2012 10:31 AM writes...

A Nonny Mouse

Permalink to Comment

20. ICanHasStartUp? on April 12, 2012 10:36 AM writes...

I'd be in. RD's concerns are seconded. It would be nice to have a physical home base (s?) that does not require a 6 figure salary to survive.

Permalink to Comment

21. Laura on April 12, 2012 10:46 AM writes...

The former science collections librarian in me agrees with #17- publishers will charge large amounts of money to license their products especially since the group will be commericial in nature (or the end use of the materials will be).

A better bet would be to negogiate a group agreement with DeepDyve ( "You can rent the article and view it at DeepDyve for 24 hours or more" for $1. The catch? No printing- you have to read it online (hence the renting not purchasing model).

Permalink to Comment

22. qetzal on April 12, 2012 10:53 AM writes...

I'm not a chemist, but I do work for a very small biotech (~10 people). Journal access is a huge impediment. There is a biomed library where I can access all their online journals for free(!), but only if I go there in person. I'd pay them a membership fee for full remote access but they don't allow that. Does anyone know of a library that does?

One other point of possible interest. At our company, we're all co-employed by Insperity (used to be Administaff). We get full heath benefits through them at decent rates. They also handle payroll. I don't know what's required to be in their network, but thought I'd throw that out there.

Permalink to Comment

23. MoMo on April 12, 2012 11:00 AM writes...

Capital Ideas McGreevy! Break away from the Status Quo here and go Guerrilla!

Let's take it a step further.
1. Lets publish all articles funded by the Taxpayer in a an underground website.
2. Enlist graduate students, post-docs and other exploited scientific workers with a Union-tried many times but failed.
3. Fund low-cost health insurance through dues in the this new "SCA"- Just like the ACS tries to do but actually make it affordable.
4. Blacklist companies and CROs, managers, executives that have bad business practices-Why give them talent and business? And reward good companies with a Seal of Good Science Approval. Anybody know any?

There are many other ideas that come to mind but this could work!

Permalink to Comment

24. MoMo on April 12, 2012 11:08 AM writes...

And Luysii, Please let us know that all at Harvard are OK in these desparate times! I spend all of my free time worrying that Harvard alumni have enough to eat!

Permalink to Comment

25. Take down the man on April 12, 2012 11:09 AM writes...

I don't know if this the inner "screw the man" coming out in me, but does anyone know of a site similar to Napster in file sharing capabilities? The difference being file sharing of scientific journals PDFs instead of MP3s music files. If no, how hard would it be to set up a bank of servers in BFE where the laws of copyright are nonexistent? I'm sure there are a few grad students with some free-time and access to a wide array of journals.

This seems immoral but so does a $4500/yr subscription rate.

Permalink to Comment

26. billswift on April 12, 2012 11:10 AM writes...

You might want to read Ron Gross's The Independent Scholar's Handbook. It is more oriented towards humanities, but has some good ideas for the sciences, too. It is also pre-Web, but the Web makes a lot of the ideas he presents easier now.

Permalink to Comment

27. josh on April 12, 2012 11:19 AM writes...

i really like the idea of bidding on contracts. i dont have a ton of experience in that area, but i have to imagine it works like any other economic situation. there would have to be some safeguard against the lowest bidder giving subpar work though... being a Massachusetts native we know all to well what happens when contractors underbid

excellent idea McGreevy, and excellent avenue to get it noticed.

how about a linkedin/facebook page to get some more input?

Permalink to Comment

28. Laura on April 12, 2012 11:32 AM writes...

#25- I used to watch millions of dollars worth of ejournal and ebook archives that I bought for the university library I worked at appear on Demonoid.

#22- I'm guessing that you are accessing a university library that allows walk-in traffic. They don't allow remote access since that violates their license agreements with publishers. Most likely, so does allowing walk-in traffic for commerical use.

Permalink to Comment

29. Chemjobber on April 12, 2012 11:47 AM writes...

To Mrs. McGreevey: thanks for the great idea! Also, I'm in.

Permalink to Comment

30. DCRogers on April 12, 2012 11:51 AM writes...

The negative selection problem squashes the possibility of health care coverage. Members with major malfunctions can cost more than 6 figures each per year -- spreading that around the healthier members gives them crappy rates so they drop out. Said another way, any individual-choice pool will always have members who can get a better price leaving the pool, so they do; rinse and repeat until there is no pool.

Having struggled on the individual market for years, these chimera 'free market' solutions are well-meaning but empty. The numbers never add up.

Permalink to Comment

31. Roland Haroutiounian on April 12, 2012 12:20 PM writes...

It's a great idea. Where to sign ?

Permalink to Comment

32. bluefoot on April 12, 2012 12:33 PM writes...

I was just having a discussion like this with a former colleague. Even just getting journal access would be a big plus. Every time I get to interview stage with a company, I want to read up on their work and familiarize myself with the people who are going to interview me. I have shelled out a pretty penny on articles. Journal access is also a problem at a lot of small biotechs. A consortium is a great idea.

RD @10 I'd be happy to participate in a meeting.

Permalink to Comment

33. anon on April 12, 2012 12:45 PM writes...

@Luysii--yes, pray tell us how members of the most highly (self-)regarded school in history that went into medicine or chemistry during the postwar boom managed to survive. the relevance to the struggling hoi polloi of today is sure to be revelatory!

by the way, anything following "I really don't want this to sound snotty" should really leave out references to Harvard unless you're being completely obtuse.

Permalink to Comment

34. Rob on April 12, 2012 12:49 PM writes...

Take a look at what the IEEE does for consulting engineers. It is very similar and has worked for a hundred years or so.

(this time I'll enable scripts on my browser so it doesn't double post)

Permalink to Comment

35. San Diego on April 12, 2012 12:55 PM writes...

We're trying to do very much what your suggesting here in San Diego through a group we started called the San Diego Entrepreneurs Exchange ( The goal is to help startups launch and succeed through information sharing, resource sharing, pooling networks, and simply building relationships. One thing that we've done that is