The Major ‘Parties’ of Science: Academia vs. Industry
For those who don’t know me, I am a first-year Ph.D. student at Thomas Jefferson University and a recent graduate of Drexel University. As a part of Drexel’s 5-and-3 program, I completed three, 6-month co-ops while earning my Bachelors of Science in Biochemistry. During those co-ops, I had the unique opportunity to work in the pharmaceutical industry by holding various positions within Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson company. Now undergoing my graduate education, I note some stark differences between the major “parties” of the field of scientific research. (see “Try Before You Buy: Why Cooperative Education is the Future” for explanation on what a ‘co-op’ is and what it means, here)
The Pillars of Biomedical Science Research
Before I begin, we should define the pillars in which we practice science. First, there is the pillar of ‘fundamental science’ – a subset of the scientific research that is solely dedicated to the discovery of new mechanisms of function and disease. This subset is also commonly called “Basic Research”. This is an area based on testable hypotheses, typically with limited knowledge of what is being studied. The second pillar is that of ‘applied’ science, which applies already discovered phenomenon to develop applications such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and additional therapies. Lastly, there is the merge of these fundamental pillars – ‘translational science’ – which blends both discovery and application. Aside from otherwise minor differences, it is the dedication to one or two of these pillars that truly differentiates our ‘parties’ of science.
If you are a member of the scientific community, you know there are two sides to the research field; members of the pharmaceutical industry or members within academic/university-based research. Truly, there are subset parties of the field – government-funded, consulting, teaching, and policy-making – but for this argument’s sake, we will define them as “third parties”, and leave them to be discussed another day. Being a member of either major party has its costs and advantages. In the not-so-distant past it was commonplace to loyally dedicate oneself to either of the two ‘parties’; however, as we now have members “crossing party lines” at one or multiple points in their careers, it’s important to be aware of the subtle differences between the two to be successful.
The ‘Academia’ Party
First, what do we define as academia? This typically includes grant-based, non-profit, and donation-funded research within the university setting. Research Institutions can also fall into this category, and are commonly associated with universities and are non-profit. Depending on your academic/education background, typical positions include: running a lab as a principal investigator (PI), staff scientist, post-doctoral fellowship, laboratory technician. PIs, post-docs, and PhDs may have additional responsibilities contracted into their positions such as teaching requirements, administrative roles, and/or other research requirements.
The primary catch with academia is that funding is typically received based on publications, merit (impact of research), and novelty of research. While some academic institutions are helping labs to start commercializing invited technology via “Technology Transfer” this is not the primary focus of the institution. Intellectual property is owned by the Inventors and the university. Technology is usually licensed or sold to other companies, or the inventors can build companies outside of the universities entirely while the university retains partial ownership of the technology. However, Tech Transfer is relatively a secondary concern for most PIs. For researchers to receive funding for salaries and research, PIs must focus their laboratory’s efforts towards producing publications in areas of novel, basic and translational research.
While it is adventitious to produced high-quality science, the pressure can drive serious competition between labs studying like-topics. Contrasting industrial competition, which encompasses bringing a product to market, academic labs must focus on broadcasting ideas through publication and grant applications. Furthermore, precious data is public knowledge the minute it is issued, further driving the pressure to re-publish soon after initial data is submitted. Depending on the PI’s dependence on outside funding sources, pressure to publish and funding availability his can make or break a lab’s ability to contribute to the field.
Despite these challenges, there are many advantages to being a member of the academic field. First, in academia one is often at the helm of exciting new research and techniques that might not otherwise be taught as common practice. It often takes a few years before textbooks lessons and/or established therapies catch up to concepts being analyzed in the lab. Second, as stated previously, academic research has the educational component to funding research, therefore providing many opportunities to train and mentor younger scientists at the onset of their careers.
Then there is the flexibility with academic research. There is often greater responsibility placed on the individual to make the time to run experiments, keep up-to-date on the latest publications in the field, and to pursue ideas that are indeed worth the resources to dedicate towards. Researchers write grants to fund their unique ideas, a luxury in most fields. For example, in industry, most therapeutics are given a timeline for development: if no notable progress is made on developing that therapeutic, that idea is typically trashed due to lack of profit to be made and progression. In academia, so long as progress on a novel idea or technique is following the guidelines of funding applications, individuals can continue to divulge into the harder questions of that topic. Pursuing results that challenge their hypothesis and following new roads that the data leads them to.
In any case, if you are intending to pursue a position in academia, you will likely be more successful if you possess the following attributes: patience, a good work ethic, enjoyment of hands-on work, ability to collaborate with others, and a strong scientific background. Degrees, publications, and awards are highly valued over technical skills. In other words, how you think is more important than what you know. You can learn new information at any time, but you need to be able to put the ideas together.
The ‘Industry’ Party
What is the Pharmaceutical Industry? This consists of a multitude of companies from all different sizes, sectors, and financial funding sources, but for the most part, we can define ‘Industry’ as the capitalization of pillars two and three – translational and applied science. Wherever a pharmaceutical company may stem from, the focus is primarily in designing, optimizing, and formulating new treatments based on already substantiated science. For scientists involved in this field, this means focusing their skillsets on optimizing already developed compounds for efficacy, selectivity, and reduced toxicity/off-target effects. The “Industry” party also consists of biotech companies and diagnostic companies, but we will focus on my unique knowledge base of drug companies.
Depending on an individual’s interest, this can be both liberating and frustrating. For instance, when concerning the production of pharmaceutics made available to the public, something can’t necessarily be made right into a treatment after its discovery and publication. Instead, Industry is required to follow strict guidelines implemented through regular validation and audit. While necessary to ensure the health and safety of the people, this can be both costly and time-consuming for the scientists charged with developing these near-perfect products. The pharmaceutical industry is arguably the most regulated sector in business, and it showed because it is directly involved in the public’s health.
Based on findings from the Tufts Center for Drug Development, the average out of pocket cost of taking a drug to market falls around $1.4 Billion with an average timeframe of ~10 years from initial discovery to validated, market sales. The total cost from start to finish is $2.6 billion when you factor expected returns that investors forego while a drug is in development. Therefore, the opportunity cost of pursuing rare, novel ideas is simply not worth the risk for most companies without the direct support of a foundation or government agency. It takes vast amounts of money to develop drugs and bring them to market.
In academia, there has been a growing trend of concluding most publications with the sweeping statement, “therefore, we have identified a novel target that may be pursued for therapeutic treatment.” While this statement is often requested by publication reviewers to ‘beef up’ the impact factor of the paper, Industry is where these de novo targets are truly put to the test. This is why pharmaceutical companies often acquire product opportunities through internal research or collaboration with ideas already founded from reviewed publication.
(For an excellent infographic on the more detailed stages of ‘bench to market’, check out this link provided by the Food and Drug Administration.)
Aside from pursuing the best candidates, other challenges faced by pharmaceutical companies include backlash against the cost of medication, competition against generics produced after patent termination, and pressure for small pharmaceutical companies to compete against powerful, large-scale companies.
Lastly, an individual that is looking to get into the pharmaceutical industry must be aware of the various advantages/disadvantages to working for a small-scale versus a large-scale pharmaceutical company. First, large-scale typically pays better and provides greater benefits/job security in the long-run; however, due to these perks, there is a growing competition for full-time positions, forcing many to settle for short-term contracts that typically don’t provide satisfactory benefits. Moreover, because of the division of labor in larger companies, employees may find themselves specializing in a specific task, rather than contributing to multiple levels of development.
Small-scale pharmaceuticals are much the opposite, with lower staff numbers, and greater emphasis for employees to contribute to all levels of benchwork. This may be challenging when trying to compete with the resources of larger companies but typically drives greater collaboration and specialization in niche services. These settings are more comparable to the academic setting whilst maintaining focus on product development and bringing a drug to market.
Members of the ‘Industry party’ must be hard-working and have great time management. As well as, Professionalism, technical skills, and an ability to follow rules and complete tasks. These skills are of higher value than pure academic/background knowledge. Years of direct experience are higher valued than physical degrees; however, higher education will shorten you required years of experience and solicit various levels of pay increase.
Pick Your Party
Academia vs Industry – ‘to be or not to be’. Contemporary scientists join either side for a multitude of reasons: pay, location, responsibilities, leadership, etc. However, I would argue the main reason for selecting one over the other is discovery vs. production. Whatever you chose, make sure you do your research on how to best prepare yourself and what to expect long-term. It is my hope that the observations in this piece provide some insight for my colleagues and peers to utilize when deciding which medium of science they wish to apply their skillsets.