A report in Bloomberg News today suggested that Eli Lilly & Co. Chief Executive Officer John Lechleiter, PhD told a technology conference today that unfavorable US permanent resident (green card) laws are to blame for declining US innovation in the life sciences. With this in mind, Lechleiter plans on calling for US immigration officials to issue more green cards and adopt a shorter and simpler process for highly skilled foreign nationals to gain permanent residence in the US. According to Dr. Lechleiter, one of only a handful of big pharma CEO who is also a PhD-trained scientist, current green card regulations are so-called job killers and force many talented foreign nationals to return to their native countries to work with firms that directly compete with American life sciences companies. Unlike most of his peers, Lechleiter has been very outspoken about the lack of US life sciences innovation.
While Lechleiter comments may have been appropriate five or more years ago, they are no longer germane to America’s waning innovation in the life sciences. There is little doubt that many bright and talented foreign nationals were denied permanent residency during the Bush era (2000 to 2008) because of stringent immigration policies and limits on the numbers of green cards allotted for persons from certain parts of the world; mainly China, India and the Middle East. This, in turn, forced many life scientists—many of whom desperately wanted permanent residency in the US—to return to their home countries to look for work and gainful employment.
As Lechleiter rightly asserts, these scientists found work with companies that began to directly compete with US life sciences. This phenomenon, coupled with the rapid assent of the middle class in many of these nations, made it possible to begin to conduct Western style research at a much lower costs in these countries. To that end, by 2007, most big pharma companies—many of whom had dwindling pipelines and monstrous overhead costs—realized that it would be more cost effective to outsource or move R&D to countries with emerging pharmaceutical and biotechnology markets and a well trained R&D workforce. And, for the past four years downsizing and outsourcing of R&D are exactly what have been taking place at many American big pharma and biotechnology companies.
In my opinion, the larger question that must be addressed, as far as US innovation in the life sciences is concerned is: why are so few Americans willing to pursue scientific careers? To wit, the main reason why so many foreign life scientists were educated and trained in the US over the past 20 years was because there weren’t enough American students to fill the incoming roster at most American graduate training programs. Put simply, America’s growing lack of innovation in the life sciences over the past decade can be directly attributed to far fewer Americans pursuing scientific careers and an increased reliance on foreign nationals—who were unable to stay in the US—to innovate! While changing US immigration laws may allow some foreign nationals to more easily remain in the US, there simply aren’t enough life sciences jobs left in the US to make it worth their while! In fact, the likelihood of them finding life sciences jobs in their home countries is now greater than it is in the US. In my opinion, the only way to restore American innovation in the life sciences is to convince American students that pursuing scientific careers is worthwhile and that the requisite training for industry jobs is available to them.
Interestingly, after leading with changes to US immigration laws, Lechleiter also suggested that America’s innovation problem could be solved by lowering US corporate tax rates and American companies should not be forced to pay taxes on oversea earnings. Also, he asserted that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should stop putting off decisions or erring on the side of avoiding risk when considering new drug applications.
This begs the questions, how do lower taxes, no overseas taxes and expedited drug approvals help to spur American innovation when most life sciences R&D is conducted outside of the US?
Until next time…
Good Luck and Good Innovating!!!!!!!!