If You’re a Scientist, Biotech Can’t Cure You

John Skylar, PhD
6 min readApr 28, 2015

“Just get a job at a biotech startup. Or better yet — start one!”

I’ve heard the above about a thousand times in response to my piece, “A Career in Science Will Cost You Your Firstborn Child.” The people I’ve heard it from range from idealistic graduate students to experienced businessmen, but no matter the source, this mantra has never satisfied me.

No matter how I look at it, the startup solution is an answer to a problem I don’t have. Science isn’t suffering from a lack of trainees going into the startup world, nor is there a shortage of startups. What there is, is a shortage of positions that allow young scientists to viably do science.

For startups, the surface practical question is the one that anyone from my background will ask: what happens when the startup fails?

About 75–90% of startups don’t succeed. These are not encouraging numbers, but I’ll concede that they’re definitely better than the 5–8% chance that you’ll become a tenure track professor. But since most PhDs end up employed or in a funded postdoctoral fellowship, the startup world still isn’t offering as much security as other options might.

And a startup really doesn’t help you if you’re a kid from a poor background who needs a job in order to pay the bills. Starting a corporation requires funding from friends, family, and investors foolhardy enough to take a risk on you. Sometimes it means going into debt because drawing your own salary means less money for the company.

When it eventually goes belly up, what are you left with? Nothing — or worse. Perhaps this is viable for people from wealthy backgrounds who have a parental safety net. But I am not interested in solutions that work for only some scientists.

To make me happy, it has to work for all scientists of competence, regardless of background.

Science already has diversity problems, and I don’t think we will end up with a better field if we don’t come up with solutions that work for people from wide economic backgrounds.

That objection works for me on a personal level, but it’s not the only thing wrong with the “startup solution.”

This solution also doesn’t work for science. While it may allow you to do some applied sciences work and make a good living, the industry world is not where the most important scientific work gets done.

When I say “most important,” I’m talking about something that most people give the unbelievably boring name “basic science research.” What this really should be called — and used to be called — is “pure science,” “science for the sake of curiosity,” or just “not letting your wallet ask your questions for you.”

Science is about probing the unknown. It is work that takes place on every frontier, and one of the most exciting things about it is that you do not know what you are going to discover. If we did know what we would get, even vaguely, when we began an experiment, it would be called engineering instead.

Engineers often discover surprises in their projects, but at least if you’re planning to build a bridge, you know your final product is going to be a bridge rather than a zebra.

“Translational” or “applied” science is also a bridge. It bridges the gap between engineering and science by doing scientific research that has a defined product in mind. In other words, these types of science are the ones you can sell. You may incidentally learn something that is of general value, but the point is to improve or develop a specific product, whether it’s a vaccine or a new type of CT scan machine.

This is the only type of science that works in the corporate world, because this is the only type of science that has an obvious route to making money within the researcher’s immediate lifetime.

Basic science, on the other hand, has brought us incredible advances. Electronics, genomics, and even the concept of germs causing disease, are all things that were discovered because of basic science research. These have brought fantastic benefits to humanity, and even generated trillions of dollars of economic activity.

The difference is, when it’s basic science, the benefits are not always apparent until decades later. The human genome project is a good example. It relied on the development of gene sequencing, which in turn relied on the discovery of DNA polymerase, the enzyme that copies DNA, as well as on the discovery that “dideoxy” chemicals, mimics of natural DNA, could halt DNA polymerase activity.

It wasn’t obvious that DNA polymerase and dideoxy nucleotides would result in sequencing technology, or even that sequencing technology would one day lead to a database online containing all human genomic information. It’s taken multiple careers to put these things together.

People did this work because they were interested in understanding the basic machinery of life. They did basic science to understand DNA and how it’s made, and 60 years later we were able to turn that work into a revolution in medicine. That took a lot of intermediate work as well, none of which was minor. But without those basic discoveries, DNA sequencing would not exist.

Eventually, corporations had to work on that stuff — but they were fueled by a rich supply of basic science discoveries to put together like LEGO and see what worked. They didn’t do that basic science research themselves.

Basic science, historically, was the province of the idle rich. The world owes a debt, surprisingly, to European nobility who had little else to do but explore their own curiosity. Rather than claiming territory in the name of their King, these folks decided to explore the real unknowns in an era where this came with no reward except satisfaction of their curiosity.

Eventually we decided that it would be good to have a government research grant system for this, so that anyone could be a scientist if they had the ability.

Corporate research is unable to supply this kind of research support, both because it undercuts their profits and because it is expensive and failure-prone. Startups can hope to, but because the startup is, by nature, risky, that world also looks like a playground for the ambitious, but idle, rich.

Instead, these worlds siphon people away from basic science, which is not a bad thing, but do very little to pay back into the world of basic science that provided their talent in the first place. The relationship is not always symbiotic, and when money does flow back into academia from patents and derivative work, it doesn’t often go directly to research. Usually, a general university budget gobbles it up.

Startups and even bigger biotech/pharmaceutical companies are not a bad thing. They are absolutely necessary for combining, testing, and developing basic science discoveries for practical applications. We need scientists going into that world.

The thing is, we have them. A lot of them. There is no shortage of startups. There is a shortage of opportunities for scientists to do basic science, on the other hand. As Newt Gingrich rightly pointed out in the New York Times recently, real funding for the NIH has fallen a LOT due to inflation since the last budget increase, as indicated by this graph from the Center for American Progress:

I look into the future, and it looks bleak for basic science to keep fueling the translational and clinical work being done in the corporate world.

The budget squeeze, combined with an oversupply of trainees, is killing the progress of basic science, and we need a solution. I keep saying this, and it’s going to keep being true: scientists need to speak to the public about the degree of this problem. They need to help the public understand that for the sake of the future, we need to be producing big science now.

If it takes 50 years for the importance of a discovery to be really apparent, then if we don’t do something, in 50 years, we’re going to be in real trouble. We can’t do world-changing research the night before it’s due.

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John Skylar, PhD

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at www.johnskylar.com and www.betterworlds.org. Opinions my own, impressions yours.