Connecticut’s challenge: retaining scientists while building a bioscience hub

In 2007, Jim O’Malley was laid off by Pfizer Inc. as the pharmaceutical giant started abandoning research and development operations in southeastern Connecticut. With more than a decade of experience as a research scientist, he decided to start his own small drug discovery company, Myometrics, in New London.

Seeking another job was not an option for him, he says. “We’re seeing a massive dip in productivity and employment right now as this whole industry restructures. So, the decision had to be made to either go back to another company and face this again, or try to strike out,” he said.

Jim O'Malley

Jim O’Malley, a former Pfizer research scientist, now runs his own small drug discovery firm.

But the downturn in Connecticut’s pharmaceutical industry does not mean the state should be training fewer scientists, O’Malley insists. The state’s plan to create a new bioscience hub and attract world-class scientists poses a challenge, however: how to create — as well as retain — key parts of the scientific workforce during an industry slump.

“I would not want to say that we should cut back on the production of Ph.D. students, but I think we should make it clear to them that it is a very risky environment to go into if you think that you’re going to be actually one day running your own lab. You probably only have about a one in five chance. About 80 percent will have to do something else.”

As the industry remains in flux, Ph.D.s in chemistry and other related subjects do have the option of continuing with their post-doctoral research in academia.

“There are people who feel like they’re stuck in a post-doc or they can’t get the job that they want, so they just stay where they are for longer than they ever intended to,” said Jennifer Frederick, co-director at the Yale Center for Scientific Education. Extended research projects are not always the best option for academics, she added, because financial support is also difficult to find.

“We need to think about whether we are discouraging people from pursuing academic professions as well because if it’s so hard to get funding, if you can’t support the research that you want to do, then what’s the incentive?”

Graduate students better off

At the graduate and undergraduate level, however, the picture isn’t that bleak. Barry Westcott, chairman of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Central Connecticut State University, said plenty of job opportunities exist for graduates.

“We typically don’t have problems placing our students that graduate in chemistry, or even biochemistry, from CCSU,” Westcott said. “Our students who want to go to graduate school get into graduate school, and our students that want to go straight into the industry get into jobs pretty easily.”

In fact, Westcott says, his department is seeking to attract more students to chemistry, biochemistry and other so-called STEM majors: science, technology, engineering and math. With only five to 10 first-year students — out of a total student population of 13,000 — Westcott said there is often pressure to eliminate low-enrollment programs.

“In a time of budget crisis, the expensive things with low enrollment are often looked at in a light of, well … is this something that’s important, or is this something we want to keep?” he said.

The University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy also says it has no difficulty matching graduates to pharmaceutical industry needs.

Jennifer Frederick

Jennifer Frederick, co-director at the Yale Center for Scientific Education

Each year, all 100 graduates of the program find jobs soon after graduation, said Robert McCarthy, dean of the UConn school of pharmacy. “We are very concerned about job cuts in the pharma industry, but so far we have been able to place all our graduates successfully.”

But nationwide statistics show that unemployment among first-time graduates is still high. According to the American Chemical Society, the national unemployment rate among chemists stands at 4.6 percent — an all-time high.

“Less than 4 percent of this number comprises chemists who have previously been in the workplace, but it is unemployment among first- time graduates that bumps that number to 4.6 percent,” said Westcott, who is also a member of the ACS.

Rather than lack of jobs, the issue here is one of mismatch, said Nicole Smith, senior economist with the Georgetown University Center on Education.

“We have mismatch at various levels. Mismatch between the skill required for the job and the skill level of the unemployed, but there is also mismatch between the location of the job and the location of the person who can fill it,” she said.

This mismatch can also show up in excess supply in particular locations, especially at the doctoral level because the demand for doctors in some disciplines, like biological sciences and chemistry, was not rising as fast as the institution’s ability to produce those students, said Smith.

“The question is, are those chemists willing and able to pick up and move to the location of the country where there are jobs that require their skills?” she said.

Becoming a bioscience hub

Connecticut faces a similar challenge in fitting the skilled workforce that it wants to retain to the new bioscience industry it’s starting to create.

McCarthy added that he is seeing an increasing demand for pharmaceutical scientists in the state, especially with the governor’s investment of $291 million in Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, a research facility at the Farmington campus of the University of Connecticut.

The lab is expected to create more than 650 research jobs in the coming years, and not be restricted to attracting home-grown talent.

“Talent is going to go where the jobs are,” said Mary Holz-Clause, vice president for economic development at the University of Connecticut. She added that bioscience initiative seeks to attract scientists from all over the world.

“Great innovations and ideas come obviously locally, but they’re also coming from people who bring new perspective, a new way of looking at a scientific discovery. While we have a very strong bioscience base here, I think there’s also real strength in looking at attracting the best scientists whether they come from our backyard or from across the ocean.”

Holz-Clause added that the university is also expanding its incubation facilities for startup companies as part of “Bioscience Connecticut” — in part to retain the skilled workforce that is coming out of the pharmaceutical industry restructuring.

But Paul Pascatello, president of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, said the investment environment has changed for nascent companies because of the headwinds that have hit the industry on the financial and regulatory side.

This includes changes in drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“The clinical trial can cost $20 million to $40 million. That kind of uncertainty to investors makes them pull back and say until we understand where the FDA is going, what their philosophy is about new drug approval, we’re going to hold back. So you see a retrenchment in riskier investments and earlier stage investments,” he said. “That’s unfortunate because that’s what we do so well in this country, and especially in Connecticut.”

Since O’Malley does not see a revival in the pharmaceutical industry anytime soon, he believes smaller companies are the best place to be right now.

Although he is pleased to see the state’s support for bioscience, he said it’s too early to predict whether the huge investment will pay off.

“Can we attract someone who brings in jobs immediately? We really are having trouble doing that and it looks like we’re paying about a million dollars a job right now, and that’s an unsustainable type of investment,” he said.

“Or,” he continued, “can we get some people up and going, enough companies up and going that in five or 10 years’ time we would’ve brought back at least a significant percentage of those jobs, so that the industry itself is at least not lost.”