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Academia Faces Bioinformatics Brain Drain As Researchers Move to Industry


PHILADELPHIA--Faced with rising competition from private companies willing to pay big bucks for a limited pool of bioinformatics talent, academic institutions are finding it increasingly difficult to hire experienced informatics researchers--or to hold on to the senior professors who helped pioneer the field.

"Academia is facing a potentially very serious problem with brain drain in bioinformatics," Chris Overton, a director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioinformatics here, told BioInform. "A lot of talent is moving very quickly from academia to industry."

That shift could create two problems, according to concerned academics and industry officials. First, it could complicate the training of new professors and the next generation of bioinformatics professionals, as the most experienced teachers and most promising graduate students trade classrooms for corporate boardrooms. Second, the shift could slow the pace of innovation in the field, as researchers move from academic settings that emphasize sharing and trying out new ideas to companies that must try to protect and invest in a few good ideas to gain an advantage in the marketplace.

While a few industry observers say these concerns are premature, there is little disagreement that, over the last two years, a dramatic expansion of corporate bioinformatics programs has created unprecedented demand for experienced researchers and managers. Almost overnight, they say, that demand turned a few dozen top academic scientists who had once labored in relative obscurity into minor celebrities who have been intensely courted by pharmaceutical makers, software vendors, and biotech companies eager to add bioinformatics expertise to their staffs.

"A year ago I was getting calls from headhunters virtually every day; one day I got three," recalled Overton, who added that he has no plans to leave academia "unless they make me an offer I can't refuse." But scores of his colleagues have seized the chance to make a career move, according to an informal survey conducted by BioInform. Among those who have made the jump are Penn's David Searls, who moved to SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals two years ago and is now vice-president and director of bioinformatics; Baylor College of Medicine's Randy Smith, also to SmithKline, and Charles Lawrence, to Sequana; the University of Houston's Dan Davison, to Bristol-Myers Squibb; and Rutgers's Mick Noordeweir, to Johnson and Johnson. In addition, Greg Helt and several colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, recently formed a new company, Neomorphic.

The rapid exodus from academic labs can be dizzying for onlookers. For example, when Nathan Goodman of the Jackson Laboratory attended a recent conference, he ran into a half-dozen colleagues who had recently made the switch. "Last time I had seen them, which wasn't that long ago, they were all in academia. Suddenly they are all in industry," he said. Another researcher, who asked not be identified, recalled a recent grant proposal he worked on that included 20 investigators from academic and government bioinformatics labs. During the six months it took for the grant to work its way through the review process, almost half the scientists left their jobs for posts in the private sector.

Those who have made the move say they were motivated by several factors. For many, like Searls, the chance to play a role in driving a major technological revolution outweighed any of the risks posed by leaving academia. "There is always a concern in moving from academia to industry about maintaining academic values, including the ability to publish and stay visible in your field," he said. "You don't want to disappear into a black hole. But what convinced me to go were the company's serious commitment to building a major bioinformatics program and the clear shift within the company from bioinformatics as a service function to bioinformatics as a full intellectual partner in the drug discovery process." Searls had worked seven years in the private sector with Unisys before spending four years at Penn.

For others--particularly poorly paid graduate students and newly minted PhD's mulling the grim academic hiring scene--the chance to make more money than most professors ever hope to see is reason enough to move to the private sector. "Students are bright; they can recognize opportunities as well as the rest of us," observed David States of Washington University's Institute for Biomedical Computing. "The salary structures are such that people just get sucked into industry--we're talking about a factor of two or three in difference. Also, people are forced to compare a very hungry commercial market to an academic market that is under some stress, and to compare the prospect of a definite, stable salary to the uncertainty of academic funding."

While States and other researchers said the flow of talent into industry is a positive sign that bioinformatics has arrived as a discipline that is being taken seriously, they worry about who will train the next generation of faculty and industry professionals. "I'm quite concerned about junior faculty development," States reiterated. And Goodman believes that "academia is losing its ability to adequately train the next generation. You can't do the training unless you have the faculty."

Goodman also worries that the trend of researchers moving to industry could slow the pace of innovation and erode academia's research base. "The center of innovation appears to be moving to industry," he commented. "If this shift continues, academia's research role in critical aspects of bioinformatics could erode. That is a problem because what distinguishes academia from industry is that academics try out new ideas and talk about what does and does not work, whereas in industry you have lots of good ideas but must focus on and protect one or two of the best so that you can invest in developing them into products. When you lose the ability to try out and talk about good ideas, you slow the rate at which the best ideas can migrate through the field."

But George Lenz of NeoGenesis in Cambridge, Mass., doubts that such fears will be realized. "I don't think information flow is as big a problem as many academics think," he told BioInform. "In a field like this, information has a very short time fuse; you can't sit on it very long."

Lenz also said industry recognizes the training problem and is looking at ways to address it. For instance, Michael Liebman, director of bioinformatics at Vysis, Downers Grove, Ill., noted that a pharmaceutical-industry-sponsored study group will release a white paper this fall that will examine, among other things, education and training problems facing the field. The informal group, called the Hever Bioinformatics Group, is also expected to make recommendations aimed at improving university training programs and strengthening exchanges between academic and industry researchers.

Already, individual companies and industry-supported foundations are taking steps to expand training programs and support researchers who want to spend their careers in academia. At SmithKline Beecham, for example, Searls said that "we're putting in place a formal training process that will amount to an in-house bioinformatics university. We have over 50 people, and if you look at the quality of our senior staff, you might as well call it a faculty. We are very actively engaged in advancing the next generation and encouraging them to publish and be visible to the outside world."

At the Washington, DC-based PhRMA Foundation, companies are supporting a special $60,000, two-year bioinformatics award designed to support young faculty working in the field. Last year's winner, Yale University's Mark Gerstein, said the award "helps point out that bioinformatics is a worthwhile field of inquiry." While he, too, reported calls from headhunters, Gerstein said he hopes to stay at Yale "until they kick me out." Foundation officials said the second PhRMA bioinformatics award will made late this year.

In the meantime, the fierce contest for bioinformatics talent continues. Lenz believes much of the top talent "has already been vacuumed up," but Searls reported that even academic institutions have wooed away a few junior researchers seriously courted by his company. "We're encountering tremendous competition from a wide range of companies, but also from academia," he said. "I've started to see some really viable counteroffers coming from academia, particularly from centers involved in genome studies. They seem to be willing to pony up at this point."

--David Malakoff

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