Academics go to Pharma
A new Nature article explores many reasons, but not one
A new article in Nature magazine laments something that is in vogue to discuss. Many academics are moving to pharma. Of course, none of these articles have shown empirical data that this trend has accelerated. That's okay. We have a paper under review that answers that question. But I would think the first thing you want to know as a journalist is: is this trend actually true? Details, details.
In the meantime, authors are happy to explore reasons why. Some of the reasons noted in the article are bizarre. A proponent of unproven covid testing was told he was discouraged from commenting about the pandemic when he worked at a university (before switching to a company). Yet, I find it hard to believe that universities discouraged people from fear-mongering. Last I checked that seems the explicit goal of many departments (many in Boston).
Someone who's developing an unnecessary gene therapy product that does the same thing as currently available drugs talks about creativity. But what's creative about making a unnecessarily permanent, me-too product? I suspect the market may soon agree with me.
What goes unmentioned is what I think the biggest failure has been. Over the last 3 decades, universities, deprived of State funding, have prostituted themselves to the biopharma industry, building more and more collaborations.
As universities have increasingly made themselves the arm of industry— the job of being a professor becomes interchangeable with working for companies. The biggest reason many faculty are going to pharma is, even before they go, they've been working for them for years.
Consider a field like oncology. The average practicing doctor at a university sees patients, and enrolls on industry run clinical trials. Sometimes they call these investigator initiated. Yet, the industry has green lit the entire process. It's a series of compromises at best, and, most likely, the original idea was obvious, and someone is going to run it one way or the other. For e.g. is “investigator initiated” to combine teclistimab with rev dex. That’s blatantly obvious.
If your faculty job is more and more ad boards and zoom meetings with pharma, then why not switch sides? You basically work on the exact same projects, get paid better, get paid in stock, and have more flexible hours. I would argue it is irrational to stay at a university in such a case.
My concern is that an inaccurate diagnosis of the root issue will lead administrators to exacerbate rather than improve the efflux. Right now, many universities are thinking about ways to make it more pleasant to work at a university as the clinical arm of pharma. Lets make it easier to enroll on trials. But, they have it backwards. If you want to keep people, you have to make the job of being a professor different than working for pharma.
Let’s be honest: that is as it should be. Universities weren’t created to work as CROs of phase 2 studies. They were created to disseminate knowledge and new ideas. To refine our thinking. There are still many at universities keeping this torch alive, against the odds. Universities should work to create faculty positions in the original spirit of the academy: places to think, reflect, write, debate.
They should consider that on their current trajectory, although they will enrich themselves, they will lose the essence of what them valuable in the first place. And of course, they will never be able to make the job more desirable than stock options in a start up, and they will never be able to match salaries.
Universities are working hard to achieve a pyrrhic victory. They just don’t see it yet.