The Fast Pace of Biotech
The biopharmaceutical industry has embraced the adage of “Don’t be afraid of change, welcome it.” In doing so, the industry has fuelled a staggering transformation over the past 20 years. Extremely complex nucleic acid molecules and recombinant proteins with highly defined and functionally sensitive characteristics have been scaled to thousands of litters in commercial-scale bioreactors. The emergence and commercialisation of “living medicines” have allowed reprogramming patient’s T cells ex vivo to exhibit drastic tumour regression and long-term tumour surveillance, developed gene therapies to reverse monogenic diseases that otherwise have little or no treatment options, and fast-tracked RNA-based vaccines at a scale never attempted to overcome a global health crisis.
Accompanying this exponential growth in developing novel therapeutic modalities, there appears to be a dramatic shift in the underlying occupational market structure. In the past, graduate students who successfully defended their Ph.D. thesis were expected to enroll for additional training as a post-doctoral researcher that would eventually catapult their career to a tenured position within a prestigious university or see them placed in a commercial organisation. However, it now appears that both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as other exclusive academic institutes are struggling to recruit and retain post-doctoral researchers. From 1990–1999, the number of postdoctoral appointees holding non-faculty research positions in science grew 29.8% and likewise, from 2000–2009 grew 27.7%.1 The following decade, 2010–2019, this metric shrank to a growth of only 3%.1 Even more alarming, a 4.1% reduction in postdocs was seen from 2020–2021.1
Similarly, trends in funding may also indicate a shift in the overall behaviour of the biopharmaceutical ecosystem. Large, more traditional multi-year grants such as the R01 and R21 are ideally suited for academic research, and over the years have served their purpose well. However, more novel mechanisms of funding research, specifically for the development of commercial technologies, have emerged and the frequency of these translational funding mechanisms has surged dramatically.