All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk
A colleague of mine when I worked for Merck used to drop by my office to discuss project management, and one of his favorite terms was “engagement.” I was reminded of this when the people at Gallup published their most recent results about their polling of the American workplace. You can find their report here, and a writeup here. One of the interesting/sad findings was that only 30% of their survey respondents (and there were 25 million respondents) report being engaged in their work. This astounds me.
One of the many perks of science is that far more than 30% of the people I work with on a daily basis are very engaged in what they do. By engaged, let me refer to the Gallup report: “Gallup defines “engaged” employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contribute to their organization in a positive manner.” Sounds like a good working definition. There are a number of reasons to go into science, but rarely do I find people saying they’re doing it for the money. Probably because that just doesn’t compute when you say it out loud.
Using myself as an example, sure, as a pharma research scientist I am compensated well for my work, but I also went through six years of a PhD program and two postdocs spanning 8 years during which I was compensated well below the average wages for someone with the same amount of education. And there was never a guarantee that I would make much more. And, generally speaking, I was happy doing what I did.
Even after my postdoc, I found an initial good job as a lab manager in academia, but at the same time that was a job with limited upward and earning potential. So why did I stay in science? I’ll admit inertia had something to do with it, but there was also my general interest in being a part of, and actively doing, science. From conversations with my colleagues, I believe the vast majority of us feel the same way. There is a curiosity that is satisfied by the act of performing science. That internal motivation makes for a strongly engaged scientific workforce.
This is why pharma and biotech are in an enviable situation with respect to their workers. And why I don’t think that Biopharma workers hate their jobs. In his fascinating book Drive, Daniel Pink talks about how workers in knowledge and creativity fields do their best work when motivated by things other than money. He identifies three key elements: growth/continual learning, a sense of purpose, and autonomy. In general drug development work can easily meet these elements. The process of doing science naturally lends itself to personal growth and learning. Making medicines that we hope will help those who are sick is an astounding source of purpose. And many scientists have freedom, admittedly to a greater or lesser degree, to design and perform experiments as they see fit. This makes the work engaging, brings out the best in the scientists and helps them reach a state of Flow.
But there was a “but…” at the end of my title, and the reason is this. Biopharma is not in a great place right now. The process of drug development has become much less effective and tidy, and the gains are becoming harder to reach and smaller and more incremental in degree. Many biopharma companies, large and small, are searching for ways to become more efficient and successful. But in doing so, I fear the practices they employ may have the unintended consequence of removing the elements of autonomy, growth and even purpose that fuels the scientific workforce. Creating silos, dictating sharply proscribed research directions from the top down–these and other kinds of changes I see across the industry are the kinds of things that chip away at satisfaction and engagement. I don’t know how things will develop, but as things are going now I fear that the next poll will find scientific workers in the same boat as workers from so many industries, where work is just the source of a paycheck instead of a source of engagement.