Outsourced science: what next?

A lot of my kind of work gets outsourced these days. Ten years ago, the idea of having people in China or India do chemistry research for you seemed quite exotic, but it sure doesn't surprise anyone now. Just about everyone in the business, from Pfizer on down to some rather small companies, contracts out work. Most of what gets shipped out is bread-and-butter stuff, such as repetitively cranking out long series of analogs of lead compounds - the sort of thing that's described by the phrase "methyl - ethyl - butyl - futile".

And that means that we don't need as many chemistry researchers cranking those things out here, which realization is a cause for growing unrest and uneasiness in the labs. High-tech research has always seemed to be one of those things that stays here in the US, and people have started to wonder: if we start sending out for that, what's left?

Well, it's comparative advantage time, then. So what do we do best over here? If I can get all meta about the issue, what I think we do best in R&D is to dream it up and put money behind it. For all the complaints about seed money and venture capital, there's really no other country in the world that does a better job starting up companies than the US. We have a lot of people (with a lot of money) with experience in evaluating ideas and getting them off the ground. It's a strange business and it's not something you can just conjure up, even inside the US itself, as some states have found to their sorrow. India (and especially China) have a ways to go before they can work up to that kind of environment. We should realize this, and make sure that we keep our edge.

But one of my worries about the current crisis in lending is that it might interrupt the flow of this process. This is a terrible time to get a small idea-driven company going, as you might well imagine. That's OK - there have been terrible times for that before, but eventually people get their shot. But what if this turns out to be a long one? A protracted freeze-up of investment money could end up hurting us in one of our most important spots - not this particular industry or that one, but our ability to create industries where there were none before.

<i>Postscript: Ah, some readers may say, what about those contract research companies in India and China? Startups, weren't they? Well, that's true - but they were built on the exact model of similar companies already in the US, just with lower costs. Many of them were started by researchers who'd worked for years over here and knew just how it should be done. These folks saw an opportunity and went for it, of course, and they should be congratulated for that. But they weren't taking as big a leap as it might appear.</i>