Friday, October 28, 2005

Outsourcing Science

More and more this seems to be a reality that the West will have to face. As the number of highly educated individuals in India and China increases and the currents gaps in the cost of living in the West vs. the East are maintained, it will be inevitable that a large amount of commercial (and perhaps academic) science will be outsourced to the East.

And the beginnings of that are almost at hand. From an article in today's NYTimes:

China wants to transform its top universities into the world's best within a decade, and it is spending billions of dollars to woo big-name scholars like Dr. Yao and build first-class research laboratories. The effort is China's latest bid to raise its profile as a great power.

China has already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people who hold doctoral degrees fivefold in 10 years.


The model is simple: recruit top foreign-trained Chinese and Chinese-American specialists, set them up in well-equipped labs, surround them with the brightest students and give them tremendous leeway. In a minority of cases, they receive American-style pay; in others, they are lured by the cost of living, generous housing and the laboratories. How many have come is unclear.

On many occasions (and on this blog and my previous blog) the issue of importing low-wage biological science workers AND outsourcing of science has come up. Now there is a rebirth of academic science in the East. So where will this all end up in 10-20 years? Will this be one of the last generation of graduate students and postdocs who can perform research in the US?

Here are some scenarios:

a) Science will be done in the West, but the pay will be bad. Few Americans enter science, preferring more lucrative jobs (lawyer, stockbroker, florist). The only individuals willing enter biomedical research are imported from other countries. WAIT this is the current situation (and I am imported labour!)

b) Due to the fact that most research grants will continue to come from the NIH, most science will be spearheaded in Western labs, but many smaller sub-projects (constructing genes, purifying proteins) will be sub-contracted to companies in India/China. (Sounds like my entry on kits.) Labs will have a PI (principal investigator) but fewer gradstudents/postdocs. Need a knockout mouse? Call up Beijing.

c) Labs will split into two. An American lab to get grants, and an Asian lab to do most of all the gruntwork. Read about Tian Xu's lab. Just like corporations, labs will go multinational.

d) All basic (i.e. unprofitable) research will be performed in the West, while pharmaceuticals will move the majority of their operations east. Although big pharma would keep outposts here so they could cash in to collaborations with any new hot field.

e) Scientific output from Asian universities increase until it rivals/surpasses Western output. Meanwhile in an anti-evolutionary orgy, American fundies go haywire, chanting "off with their heads" and Science from the US disappears.

f) Nothing much happens. Political instability in China and India cripples government funding towards science. Other impediments include a lack of local biomedical related industries that provide reagents/equipment and other essential tools for science, a cooling down of "globalization" with it's many indirect effects (such as impeding the ability of eastern labs to import equipment from the West). And then there is war, religious strife ...

Note that I'm not saying that these changes are good or bad, but that they may happen and we have to deal with them. OK my head hurts (and my anxiety is high), Friday Happy Hour here I come ...