Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On The International Nature of American Biotech

I'll spend two hours in project meetings tomorrow. Around the table will be a group of scientists who are all at the top of the game and among the best in the world at what they do. We will be trying to push forward new antibiotics to save lives. Yes, we are also trying to be rewarded monetarily with it, but we all share a mission to improve humanity by finding new drugs for important medical needs.

Five of us were born in the U.S. six are foreign-born.
Our best bacterial geneticist hails from the U.K. She met and married a lovely woman from Miami when they were both in school at Harvard. They recently moved to a somewhat tired house and have been renovating it. 
The leader of the microbiology group grew up near Hanoi. He shows remarkable calm when describing watching, as a child, bombs tumble out of USAF B-52s to explode a few miles away. His son is in college here in the States.
The chemistry group leader came here as a Vietnamese boat person, a penniless teenager. While in Vietnam he was once caught in crossfire while trying to pick coconuts. His family's escape involved a clever conspiracy to dupe the authorities, a botched rendezvous at sea that split families, a terrible storm, a potentially lethal encounter with pirates and months in a refugee camp. It is a tale that could have been spun by Alan Furst or John le CarrĂ©, except it is his life story. He knew no English and was dropped in a small town in Texas where there was one other Vietnamese student, held back so they could go through school together. He was taunted for his ethnicity.  He's a recognized leader in antibiotics development and has raised his family here.
Our top separations chemist is Chinese; wonderful colleague, great communicator. His college-age son interned for us; smart cookie, totally American in outlook. Complete can-do spirit; he came in on Christmas break last year just to hang out with his Dad -- but I assumed he was working & gave him a project, he tore into it without once saying "wait, I'm not actually on the clock today!".
We have two Chinese molecular biologists as well. One has a toddler. Nicest guy & perhaps the hardest worker I know. Pushes protocols to their limits and then beyond. Expands the possible. The other is single; she is proud of the home she just bought and how she negotiated the first-time home buying process. Given any scientific task, she will keep going until the result is obtained. Hard-working, bright and friendly; we really don't hire any other type.
This is the norm for my foreign-born colleagues: putting down roots. Whether they have married American citizens or not, their kids are solidly American in outlook without losing their heritage. Some of these kids are tri-lingual, as their parents don't even share a common native language. 
My non-native colleagues buy houses. They coach youth teams. They volunteer their time to our communities. Their children are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and youth athletes. How is the country not enriched by having them in our midst?
Warp Drive is not a huge company, and we've had relatively modest employee turnover. Perhaps a third to a half of the ~120 employees who have come through have not been native born. I've had the pleasure and honor to work with (and learn from) colleagues born in Canada, England, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, China, Vietnam, Korea. I've probably forgotten a few, and the list would be much, much larger if I included Infinity (add Uganda, Latvia, Argentina, Spain), Codon Devices (add Slovenia, Iran, Egypt, Brazil, Columbia, Romania, Poland) and Millennium (add Czech Republic, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Syria, Holland, Iceland).  Many more that I've failed to pin down in my memory.  I rarely know their immigration status, except when they proudly announce earning U.S. Citizenship -- or when our old counterproductive immigration rules kept them from conferences or seeing family.
Now, I'm worried about my colleagues. Will my friends who are Syrian or Iranian be able to extract families from the lethal chaos of the former or the theocratic tyranny of the latter? Will some of my foreign national co-workers be trapped in bureaucratic hell for attempting to visit family or attend a funeral? If their elderly parents try to visit, will they be detained for five or ten hours with few comforts and complete uncertainty? If the Administration unleashes a trade or shooting war with China, will my friends be deported or interned? Will white nationalists continue to be emboldened so that those who don't look like me will fear for their safety?
And will a brain drain begin? Will the next generation of talented Europeans and Africans and Asians and South Americans decide to stay away from our shores? Perhaps kept away by rumored changes in the H1-B program (which some tech companies have abused royally, which doesn't help).
Will the best and the brightest stop flocking to our schools and companies, but instead look for safe havens in Singapore or Canada or Brazil or somewhere else? After all, that was key fuel to the U.S.'s ascendancy to technological greatness: brilliant refugees from Europe who escaped during the 1930s. I don't begrudge any country its honest successes, but I can still bemoan my country's losses to foolish xenophobia, to fears run beyond any rational bound. 
Will investments flee also, meaning the next sets of exciting companies (with their attendant jobs) will not be headquartered here?  If our promises to allow entry to our country aren't worth the paper they're printed on, what of any other promise we make? This weekend's airport chaos surely doesn't advertise any sort of competence or decency. Can I in good conscience invite potential partners or experts from foreign lands to visit, knowing that they might be turned away with no prior notice?
We are a nation of immigrants. Many of those immigrants were feared and despised on their arrival; we have succeeded as a nation in spite of that. My father-in-law's parents were part of a previous "horde" to strike fear, immigrants from the Soviet Union not long after the Communist Revolution. I can trace my own heritage both back to my father's grandparents and to before the United States existed, but that should be nothing but personal pride.  How long someone's family has been here is irrelevant to their value as a citizen and a scientist.
We are a nation that is a leader in business and science and technology. Many in this country have not benefited from those successes, and that should be addressed. We have not always upheld our ideals where doing business here or abroad. But don't dynamite our ideals. Don't think that recklessly destroying what is will somehow restore what is missing. Walling us off from the world won't fix our ills, it will simply leave us poorer in every sense and hobble our efforts to solve our problems. 

I know this represents an extraordinary departure from the usual subject material in this space and may lose me some readers. But these are extraordinary times. As I kid fascinated by world events, I hoped I would live through exciting times.  These are not the sort of events I envisioned, nor could ever want to live through.

Our nation was once before nearly rent permanently asunder by deep conflict. In the midst of that conflict, when the result was far from known, Abraham Lincoln urged the nation to renew its commitment to the noblest elements of its founding ideals . I am enough of a foolish optimist to believe that we can have such a renewal again.


Anonymous said...

LOL, that boat guy reminded me of Stockholm syndrome -


Didn't a democrat from Massachusetts and his democrat Vice President start and extend the Vietnam war, and that too under false pretense?


Rick said...

Laying blame for the current state of terrorism and refugees is, in my opinion, going down a rabbit hole of historical events. What is evident is that (a) science is international and (b) America was and is a nation of immigrants. Presidential rules, no matter how temporary, that raise concerns about America's ability to welcome foreigners should be a topic of conversation.

Guy said...

Well said, Keith. Sorry the first couple of comments were from trolls. This Executive Order is bad not just for science, but for our society as a whole. Attempts to defend it by pointing to FDR's Executive Order 9066 just hammer home that no president is infallible; surely we should learn from past errors in judgement?

Anonymous said...

Canada's Prime Minister is already positioning Canada as the best alternative and is doing a major branding along that line "diversity is our strength". We can't compete with the US for academic prestige, size of NIH grant, or salaries, so this tragedy for the US braintrust is a recruiting tool for underpowered countries. I appreciate what you wrote. Thank you.

Greg said...

Keith --
What a wonderful post. Your experience completely mirrors my own life in biotech. How lucky for us to work in an industry where hard work and talent outweigh melanocyte expression levels or the fortuity of emerging on this planet in the US. We in the tech world take this impartiality for race, origin and religion for granted, and frankly at our own peril. We've got a fight on our hands and I'm thankful we have such an eloquent patriot on our side!