Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Scientists Can't Save Us If There Aren't Many Scientists

Two Normal Scientists

As a former academic scientist it is hard for me to comprehend how many scientists there actually are. When I was in graduate school I was surrounded by scientists. My friends were scientists, my colleagues, the friends of my friends were. I had lunch with scientists, got hammered out of my gourd with scientists and had sex with scientists. The only people I interacted with that weren’t scientists were the bartenders at The Cove Lounge and my family.

With the ‘rona pandemic scaring the shit out of people we all hope the scientists are there to save us. Ya’ know like some Outbreak bullshit. Last minute, save your lover. Where is Dustin Hoffman when we need him? There are so many articles about scientists and companies doing their part that it seems like everyone in the world is working to save us. I have long pondered the question of how many scientists there actually are. If we were to conjure up all biomedical scientists and pay them to work on the ‘rona exclusively how many would that be? I imagine alot but only 2% of the US(~6 million people) has a PhD in anything. That number seems low to me. I guess I know too many PhDs and it skews my estimate. When I actually started to figure out how many scientists there are it was even more shocking. 

Trying to quantify the number of scientists that are working to save us from disease is tough as there really is no data on it. Instead, what we can do is use the data that is available to indirectly infer how many scientists there are out there working in biomedical research.

According to the NSF there are around 200,000 employed PhD biological scientists in the US. If we try and narrow down the number to those engaged in biomedical research the number drops closer to 50,000-100,000. Understand, scientists aren’t just PhDs. PhDs are actually the smallest group of scientists. There are about twice as many people receiving Master’s degree so if we assume similar employment rates for Master’s degrees as we do with PhDs that adds another ~200,000 people to the biological researcher workforce. For bachelor’s degrees ~2 million have been received in Biological sciences since 1990. It is difficult to find the numbers of people with Bachelor’s degrees who are employed in biomedical research. If we use, a website which includes many or most job postings, and look for entry level job openings in biomedical research in the US the number is somewhere around 6,000. If we can assume most jobs stay on the market for 3 months that is about 24,000 entry level jobs a year. If we assume the number of jobs available is proportional to the number of people who obtained degrees (which isn’t always true but is our best bet) we have around 300,000 - 400,000 total employees with Bachelor's degrees. If we add up those numbers we have a total of around 450,000 - 700,000 active biomedical research scientists in the US. 

That number is just so much smaller than I imagined. The crazy thing is that many of these people are teachers, managers or work in non-research roles so even 450,000 is probably a high estimate. But the world is a pretty big place and the US is small in the whole scheme of things. Right? I mean...

Finding data on how many biomedical scientists are in every country is near impossible but fortunately (unfortunately?) most countries contribute so little to the total that we can just ignore them. According to the NSF, China awards around twice as many science and engineering bachelor’s degrees as the US but only 85% as many PhDs. The Euro8(Germany, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, and Romania) awards around the same number of bachelor’s degrees as the US while also awarding about 1.5x more PhDs. If we can extrapolate the job numbers from the US we are looking at around 800,000 bachelor’s + 200,000 masters + 85,000 PhDs and around 1.1 million biomedical researchers in China, 400,000 bachelor’s + 300,000 master’s + 150,000 PhDs and around 850,000 in Euro8. I know it seems weird to just choose these countries but from the data the number of biomedical researchers in other countries not mentioned do not significantly contribute to the worldwide total from all the numbers I can find.

An estimate of the worldwide total number of individuals actively employed in biomedicine in any capacity is  around 3 million.

Being hands-on in science is essential to being able to plan out research experiments and perform research. When you aren’t using equipment you lose your touch and sense of intuition for what is possible and on what time scale. There is a phrase in science that people use for someone who knows their way around a lab and can make things work. Scientists say that the person has “got hands” or has “good hands”.

Most scientists you have heard of or revered don't have good hands. Nobel Prize researchers generally didn't do the actual experiments that lead to the Nobel Prize. People say it is the process of science and that everyone moves away from doing lab work but it really doesn’t make much sense. Scientists at the prime of their career and ability, generally quit doing actual hands-on science. 

In an average research lab of 10 people there are around 3 people who participate in a support role and not active research. These positions would be the lab Principal Investigator(PI), the lab manager, administrative roles and roles like dishwasher. If we subtract that 30% we are at around 2.1 million biomedical non-support role researchers worldwide. At MIT, the typical lab is under 10 people and I imagine that number is even less elsewhere. I have worked in labs with one or two others and those other two were in support roles and not active in research. These numbers are probably an underestimate.

Our final worldwide total is around 2.1 million biomedical non-support role researchers who can do hands-on work. 

Around 50% of US research funding is for applied research which is considered research that can contribute directly to a product or outcome. I know, I know but basic science research will contribute to helping us _eventually_. While I don’t necessarily share that sentiment and my own published research is evidence of that fact, I am talking about research that can contribute now. Like, if say, a virus was spreading. From the NSF we know that 25% of researchers work at for profit institutions and let’s just say for profit institutions are generally doing applied research. Drug companies got to make drugs amirite? That leaves 50% of the other 75% as those doing applied research that can contribute directly to a biomedical product or outcome now. If we use these numbers to extrapolate to our global number

This leaves us with around 1.3 million people worldwide doing applied biomedical non-support role hands-on research.

If around 7% of those are PhD researchers, as from the initial numbers above, that is only 91,000 PhDs doing applied biomedical non-support role hands-on research worldwide!!!! 

The lack of experienced scientists doing hands-on research hurts us all. One of the goals of my company, The ODIN, is to train up people who can do hands-on scientific research. In the past year we have trained nearly 2,000 people to do so. The problem isn’t schools not letting in enough people, it is the simple problem of marketing. Convincing people that they are capable and then training them.

The World Health Organization(WHO) has a system that provides codes and nomenclature for over 33,000 diseases. If no one researched anything in biomedical science but diseases that would be less than 3 PhD scientists per disease in the world. 

Here is the problem, when new threats come around like CoVid-19 the number of scientists with actual knowledge and skill to be able to work towards developing a treatment is tiny. If you imagine that vaccine development for viruses is a subset of a field in virology and then factor in familiarity with coronaviruses you are down to very few people. In 2016, coronaviruses were listed by the World Health Organization as in urgent need of R&D. Using Pubmed, I found 12 scientific publications in 2017 that mention (coronavirus or CoV) and vaccine in the title, 6 in 2018 and 16 in 2019

Despite multiple previous coronavirus pandemics why wasn’t there more research on coronavirus vaccines done? 

It's not funding. The NIH alone invests $41 Billion in medical research a year. The top 20 Pharma companies invest around $100 billion. ChinaEurope and Japan add near another $100 billion. Bringing the total Biotech R&D investment per year to somewhere near a quarter of a trillion dollars.

Honestly, I imagine it is because there just aren’t enough scientists to go around. 

We should be afraid and not because of CoVid-19. There are so many diseases that humans suffer and die from on a daily basis that have no treatment or cure. That shit needs to change and change fast. We need more scientists that can do hands-on research because what we have just ain't cutting it.