Bingbing Feng and Chip Carnathan have a lot in common. Both men are pharmaceutical professionals with doctorates from U.S. universities, multiple years of experience with American biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, and families in the U.S. Each thinks his best career move would be to work in China next.
The pharmaceutical and drug-development business is changing globally, with unavoidable effects on the lives of professionals. The past three years have seen big pharmaceutical companies laying off tens of thousands of highly educated, trained scientists and the U.S. is not creating jobs fast enough to absorb the talent. In tandem with this decline has been an intense push by China to create companies and jobs in the life science sector. As more work is outsourced to China, less is performed in the U.S. Being jobless in the U.S. for a year or more is not uncommon, so China is poised to be the largest beneficiary of a global talent shift.
In 2007 the report "Globalization of Innovation: Pharmaceuticals," co-authored by Vivek Wadhwa, a senior research associate at Harvard Law School, noted that 5 of the world's top 10 pharmaceutical companies were based in the U.S., although the country's standing was threatened. "Cost pressures, the need to tap global talent, and growth opportunities in emerging markets have prompted Western pharmaceutical companies to shift substantial manufacturing and clinical-trial work to India and China," the report stated. "Increasingly these companies are turning to Asia to broaden the range of new drug candidates."
The intellectual processes of innovation and creativity, often called scientific rigor, hold the key to pharmaceutical success. After scientists present research to peers and superiors, a dynamic dialogue questions and critiques the work, requiring the scientists to push back with rebuttals. Such vigorous sessions are the hallmark of Western research and development culture. Scientists trained to "push back" are in demand—just not so much in the U.S. According to the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators, U.S. institutions granted 41,000 science and engineering PhDs in 2007, a third of them to foreign students. The SEI report notes that "recent growth in R&D expenditures has been most dramatic in China, averaging just above 19 percent annually in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past decade," compared with just a 3.3 percent increase in the U.S.
In China, team spirit is alien
People who were born abroad, obtain educational and work experience in the U.S., and then go back to their homelands are referred to as "returnees." "Availability of talent and human capital continues to be a significant concern" to expanding companies, stated the globalization report. While Indian and Chinese returnees are "available today in greater numbers than in years past, many (local) pharmaceutical employees have limited experience with drug-discovery culture."
"In China it's harder for people to express themselves voluntarily. They are trained from elementary school to compete for No. 1 so that no one can beat you," says Mei-Shu Shih, a returnee who serves as chief scientific officer of PharmaLegacy Laboratories, a contract research organization based in Shanghai. "In the United States the mentality in the corporations is to push for scientists to be team players." Shih says that once team spirit is cultivated in a group of native Chinese scientists, they open up and become "quite brilliant." Still, he notes, a cultural reticence to speak up can be difficult to overcome.
The push for Western-trained scientists has begun. Cliff Hegan, managing director of Fitco-Consulting, an executive recruiting firm based in Shanghai and Singapore, says that "Western research-and-discovery technology is more scientifically advanced. Chinese-trained scientists are more application-centered and therefore less technically advanced and innovative in their thinking." Pharmaceutical companies want U.S. trained managers because of their entrepreneurial spirit and creative problem solving skills, in contrast to the more linear, pragmatic, approach of their Asian counterparts. The cultural divide is creating opportunities.
Beijing: Boston-like academic cluster
Language is typically not a barrier for a Western scientist seeking to enter the Chinese job market, especially at senior levels. Companies are often willing to provide Mandarin tutors to ease the transition. And because most senior and middle managers in China received essential scientific training in the U.S., they tend to speak English, with young PhDs surprisingly fluent. "Most scientists are surprised when they walk into a lab in Beijing and sit down and interact with a team. Often they see former colleagues and it feels quite like a biotech in Cambridge," where easily 25 percent of the scientists are Chinese, says John Oyler, a serial entrepreneur and graduate of MIT and Stanford who is starting a cancer research company in Beijing. "It is early here and there is still room for many more talented, Western-trained, research-and-discovery professionals in Beijing."
Oyler moved to Beijing in 2005 to start BioDuro, a contract research organization that was sold to Pharmaceutical Product Development, a leading global research contractor focused on drug discovery, development, and life-cycle-management services in 2009. "Most people thought I was crazy to move to China. But the move was obvious," he said. "There are top academic institutions here—unequalled by any city other than Boston—talented and hardworking professionals with great minds, and deep financial support from the Beijing government." Oyler says it was easy to create a vibrant life because of the energy and close-knit nature of the industry in China.
Some companies prefer candidates fluent in both languages and familiar with both cultures. Bingbing Feng exemplifies this point. "A returnee brings knowledge and experience that a local Chinese does not," he says. Born and raised in Beijing, Feng moved to the U.S. at 22 to continue his scientific education. He received his doctorate from Purdue in 1997 and then worked in Pennsylvania for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). "The expectations are much higher for a returnee," he said. "We are expected to bring more to our job and deliver more than a local Chinese." Open to working in the U.S. or China, Feng says China offers "more opportunities as it's building up the industry."
"jump at the chance to work in China"
Dr. Jisong Cui, director at Merck Research Laboratories and president of the Sino-American Pharmaceutical Professionals Assn., admits that heritage is coaxing some of her friends back to Asia. Most return, she says, because they consider the career options to be better in China. Since her organization was created in 1993, in part to promote scientific exchange between the U.S. and China, SAPA has grown to more than 4,000 members. Cui estimates that 1,000 U.S.-based members have already returned to China. Indeed, Merck is moving its external research and clinical services work to China to take advantage of current trends.
Carnathan, who has worked in drug development and global regulatory affairs, says he would tell his sons to "jump at the chance to work in China" and would himself follow that advice if he were to receive an offer there. "China is the next wave of business innovation and growth and to be there at the beginning of the upswing is even better," Carnathan says.