Guest post from Nik Papageorgiou:

Every culture has taboos. There’s a dark side to the Force. And for every mythology, there’s always some kind of power, dominion or netherworld whose name must never be uttered—or only with solemn care. And I’d like to think that by now, scientists have realized that they are not exempt from such cultural dynamics—after all, we have all the identifying marks of separate culture: traditions, rites-of-passage, ceremonies, unspoken rules, spoken rules, succession, sensitivity to stereotyping, hierarchical structures and, of course, taboos.

So today, we fiddle with the hex.

It’s true that, given scientific economics are in the bust phase of their cycle, industry does and will continue to attract scientists from academia. There are other, many and varied, incentives, but in many cases, industry is simply the only way to go.

I currently work in industry. It’s not the first time—I also did an MSc industrial placement, which I remember as the best-funded research I’ve ever carried out (“Only £2,000? Buy two”). And I’ve yet to meet the scientist whose childhood dream was to work in a pharmaceutical or biotech company. But I’ve met many who dreamt they were falling and had to wake up before they hit the ground.

For a long time, industry has a stigma in academic circles. It is regarded as either a last refuge for those who couldn’t “hack it” or an end of innocence—a less-than-happy finale to the academic fairy tale. Back in my PhD days, I remember discussing a student who’d accepted an industrial position. It was a virtual memorial service: staff members shook their heads sadly and sighed deeply: “Such a waste. He’d make a good scientist.”

So what I wanted to do is try to address some misconceptions about working in industry. First, some caveats:

  1. In no way am I trying to diminish academia. I’ve spent many exciting and formative years in the academic scene and my debt is respectfully and sincerely acknowledged.
  2. This mostly applies to pharma/biotech; but I suspect the same arguments could be raised for other commercialized fields too.
  3. It’ll end up sounding like it, but I’m not trying to paint a rosy picture of industry. But I do think it offers many advantages that many in the academic route have never considered or are mostly unaware of. My last university certainly made a commendable effort to inform postdocs that there lies more beyond just another grant.
  4. This comes from my own experience, peppered with what others have imparted to me over the years. Your experience might be entirely different and you may disagree. We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

So here we go:

Industry is all about money

And what isn’t? Okay, charities. But we’re scientists, and we ought to look at facts. Take a cross-section of any science news-feed/blog/sticky note in the past year and see how much has been devoted in the discussion of science funding. Main argument: how can we value science? It’s invaluable! cry scientists. Of course, say the money people, but we’ll need some receipts.

Fact is, we live in economies driven by profit. Science, in its spectral purity, has to figure out a way to keep going. It might offend our sensibilities, but money has become the fuel that drives—not ignites—science. Ask yourself: how well would you work in research without a salary? How much science is limited by lack of a grant? Or why is there a drive to create/improve commercial relationships between academic research and companies?

I’m not cynical—please. But I am realistic. Industry has the ability to drive science faster and more efficiently than the current academic condition. It’s sad, but true nonetheless.

Industry will restrict my scientific freedom

That’s a common fear. And not unfounded, depending on how you define “freedom”. If you mean “I won’t get to work on whatever I want”, then you’re right. Industry works with pipelines, which are simply VERY big Gantt charts. There is no other way. Yours will be a crucial, yet relatively small, piece in a project of mind-boggling proportions; whether early on identifying potential targets or towards the end, carrying out quality control or characterization work on developed products, you are inevitably part of a larger and pretty well-defined team that extends both ways into the distance. There is no “my project” in industry, and that’s mostly what academics find unpalatable. Teamwork is crucial. Interaction is crucial. Communication of both success and failure is crucial. Transparency is crucial. Seeking help and advice is crucial. The measures of success are diametrically different. Individualism will only hamper you. You watch your corner, pass on the baton, and prepare for the next thing coming at you.

That won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s fine. But it’s a work process that constantly challenges technical and mental skills, develops adaptability and is more often than not far more scientifically exciting than the isolation that often marks academic research (for my postdoc, I spent two years working alone in a cell culture lab. I’m thankful for mp3 players). If anything, you develop a vastly wider technical knowledge.

If on the other hand, you mean “I’ll be a robot and no-one will care for my ideas,” I can flat-out tell you that’s not true. In my industrial experience, ideas and contributions are asked for, welcomed and appreciated—I’d say more than in academia, where money and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” dominate most labs. In industry, it’s fair to say that employees are actively encouraged to make things more efficient, for obvious reasons.

Industry is obsessed with going by the book

And rightly so—unless you want the next paracetamol you pop to kill you. The pharmaceutical industry makes stuff that goes in your bodies to make you better. That means that everything it does prior to that must be held up to independent and very high standards—especially in the development phase of the pipeline where consistency and robustness are of critical importance (and in which lab aren’t they?). Lab books are not creative art projects. Data can’t be fudged. Work cannot be communicated in an arcane unintelligible language understood only by me, myself and mine. Protocols have to be clear, precise, detailed and comprehensive. No margin-scrawling of mysterious calculations. There must be a standard of work that, in my experience, often does not correspond to academic work (and a lot of it really should). Myself included, there are many who come into industry from an academic setting only to be shocked by the prospect of doing science “properly” (I was trying to avoid that, but we were all thinking it). There’s no room for dashing rogue scientists with a charming smiles and cowboy attitudes—and I’m finding that the same is starting to go for academia too. In the end, whether it’s a paper or a drug, you want your yea to be yea and your nay to be nay.

Don’t you?

I’ll stop there. I’m sure there will be many who disagree and think that I’m trying to discourage academic scientists from being all they can be. I’m not. But I think that industry is not the terrible out for losers that certain ivory towers make it out be. Real and often next-level science happens there—and there’s nothing wrong with being part of it.

Quite the contrary.