Skip to Content

Business and Markets

Merck Cuts Chemistry

So Merck has followed through on their recent job cuts by telling the chemists in New Jersey who’s staying and who’s going. From what I hear, up to fifty have been let go, including a number of longtime researchers. I doubt if much has been getting done there the last month or two anyway, after the announcement in July, what with people trying to find somewhere else to go or waiting to see if they’d be one of the ones laid off. A real productivity enhancer, this stuff is – and it’s not like the people left after one of these cuts are exactly refreshed and energized, either. Cost cutting has its costs, too, and not every spreadsheet lists them.

58 comments on “Merck Cuts Chemistry”

  1. JB says:

    If anyone wants to join the migration to Boston, Broad therapeutics is looking for a senior med chemist.

    1. Anchor says:

      @JB…I am sure that it is already “taken” without much fanfare! At times I take these ads are designed to send more shock treatment to medicinal chemists. I am sure that there is a big pile of resumes in the garbage bag waiting to cleared at Broad institute.

      1. JB says:

        No it’s still open, trust me.

        1. DanielDJones says:

          Way to point out where you work, JB…

  2. Dave says:

    Seems this is happening in a lot of companies now. Not exactly what I’d call a morale booster for the people who are left. I’ve been hearing a lot of refrains of “They’ll cut us all eventually!”. 🙁

  3. Kelvin says:

    Law of diminishing returns -> diminishing incremental benefits at increasing cost -> diminishing return on investment -> inability to create value with innovation -> broken business model -> terminal decline with consolidation and job cuts.

  4. luysii says:

    So sad considering Merck’s history. As a grad student I went to the yearly Max Tischler lecture, endowed by Merck at Harvard, to honor the great organic chemist who did so much for them. That was 55+ years ago and the series rolls on to this day, given each year by an eminent chemist.

    Here’s the list

    1961 William von E. Doering
    1962 George Hammond
    1963 Rolf Huisgen
    1964 William Johnson
    1965 John D. Roberts
    1966 Albert Eschenmoser
    1968 Costin D. Nenitzescu
    1970 John W. Cornforth
    1972 Duilio Arigoni
    1975 Gilbert Stork
    1976 Gerhard Closs
    1978 Alan Battersby
    1981 Paul Bartlett
    1983 Raymond U. Lemieux
    1985 Jack D. Dunitz
    1988 Jack Baldwin
    1989 George H. Büchi
    1990 Dieter Seebach
    1992 Alan R. Fersht
    1994 Ryoji Noyori
    1995 Samuel J. Danishefsky
    1996 Joseph L. Goldstein
    1997 Robert Huber
    1998 Hisashi Yamamoto
    1999 Peter B. Dervan
    2000 K.C. Nicolaou
    2001 Robert H. Grubbs
    2002 Thomas R. Cech
    2003 Robert G. Bergman
    2004 Roderick MacKinnon
    2005 JoAnne Stubbe
    2006 Larry Overman
    2007 Amir Hoveyda
    2008 Stephen L. Buchwald
    2009 Tohru Fukuyama
    2010 John Sutherland
    2011 Dale Boger
    2012 Christopher T. Walsh
    2013 Barry Trost
    2014 John F. Hartwig
    2015 Erick M. Carreira

    1. FormerChemist says:

      Good thing those seminars are in Cambridge. There’d be no chemists left to attend them at Merck’s NJ sites.

  5. AnonCP says:

    The end of medicinal chemistry/organic chemistry as a career in the U.S. is happening!

    1. bio-trumps-chem says:

      It will cycle back up, depending on when biologists can more precisely and reproducibly figure out the mechanisms of diseases that have untapped market share and assuming the mechanisms are amenable to small molecule therapeutics.

      1. Dr CNS says:

        … and how do you do that without medicinal chemists, exactly?

        1. bad wolf says:

          Reinventing the wheel? Luckily there’s all kinds of super-smart Harvard people just down the road now!

        2. Erebus says:

          By outsourcing to Chinese CROs?

        3. bio-trumps-chem says:

          It’s simple supply and demand. You don’t need an army of med-chemists to do PoC studies (early lead chemistry). However, you do need an army when you’ve got new (and well validated) targets and the clock is ticking on competitive advantage (lead optimization). Even then, the current paradigm would be to out-source much of the synthetic work, as the synthetic routes are worked out. So there will always be a need for some amount of med-chem resource around, but it looks like lean times until there’s a bunch of hot targets to work on (requiring small molecules).

          1. Dr CNS says:

            … and you trust a team of biologists without chemistry input to validate new targets?
            Good luck with that!

        4. bio-trumps-chem says:

          Doktor CNS – increase your dose of ritalin. No one is suggesting validation without chemistry.

          1. Dr. CNS says:

            Thanks – just took another dose!
            If you treat chemists this way, you are working without chemists – you just don’t know it.

        5. Anon says:

          While molecular design requires another level of experience and expertise, synthesis, purification and QC analysis is now virtually a commodity where cheap chinese laborers can follow a textbook recipe.

          The point is you only need one (1) medicinal chemist to design and order all the molecules you need from a Chinese CRO, which can actually produce good quality stuff very fast and cheap.

          1. Hap says:

            If you can get stuff that predictably, though, then it should be automatable, because the chemistry is predictable enough to be done well and reproducibly. Using machines, you don’t have to worry about communications delays or training your competitors or the leverage your CRO synthesis people will have once you have no internal synthesis capacity – you can make what your design people can design. The problem is, I don’t think most synthesis is this predictable, and if you expect your CRO to make unpredictable chemistry predictable, you’re going to have to either pay them for the task (which won’t be cheap) or take what they’ll give you (and the waste of time when you find out what you paid not enough for isn’t actually what you wanted).

            I am cynical enough to think that this has little to do with the ability of CROs to perform the same jobs as internal chemists cheaper and reproducibly and more with CROs being cheaper and management not caring about the quality of the downstream product (because they won’t be around when the feces hit the air-moving devices) but only about the money that ends up in someone’s pockets. Freedom’s not caring about the quality of your work, as Dilbert once said.

          2. A designer in big pharma says:

            Anon, in principle you are correct, one designer can tell a large number of CRO chemists to make stuff, and they will succeed at making most of it. You had better pick the right one person to do your design and data analysis though! Seems like having more people (ideally a mix of experienced and “unbiased” new ones) thinking about the problem would increase the chances of success though. Drugs are discovered by teams, not individuals, platforms or software packages.

          3. Anon says:

            @Hap, you’ll always need a bit of tinkering around and optimization, but still a Chinese CRO can do that no problem.

            Med chem has basically gone the way of plastic injection moulding: There’s still a need for highly skilled compound/product designers, but the Chinese have all the skills needed to actually make the stuff.

          4. Hap says:

            At that point, though, the question is, what they can’t do. Given that pharma seems to be dumping discovery as fast as they can get away with, they don’t think the discovery they have actually works, so either someone else can learn it (quicker, because they don’t have to unlearn anything) or they are acting for something other than the long term. Development (getting something to market) might be something they can’t do yet, but I wouldn’t be terribly confident of that, considering how many drugs make it through trials (and how many fail for efficacy).

            If this is the case, I’m wondering why pharma management hasn’t been outsourced. I’m sure you could get someone to “take the money and run” for a lot less than current management.

  6. Mike B. says:

    I ditched med chem a long time ago. We’ve heard it for the past 20 years–that cutting good scientists and chemists will eventually dry up pipelines that will inevitably lead to the downfalls of major pharma companies. Well guess who is still around after the turmoil–big pharma. Guess who isn’t around–med chemists. Maybe, just maybe, med chem has too much hubris and needs a reality check. If what you are doing is so valuable then why is it so easily outsourced? Scientists tend to vastly underrate the financial and business logistics of running a company. They’re not there for altruistic reasons or to answer interesting hypotheses. Produce or get axed. Pursuing a career in R and D, in general, is only for the naive, unless of course you enjoy selling your house every 3 years in order to relocate for a new job after you’ve been laid off from a previous R and D gig.

    1. old timer says:

      The decision to outsource medicinal chemistry was made by folks who have no idea what they are doing, and think that all med chemists do is “make compounds”.

      Without any doubts, not all chemistry needs to be done in-house, and there are strategic advantages of outsourcing. But the industry is digging by acting like all the med chemists bring to the table is a powder in a bottle.

      1. old timer says:

        … digging its own grave…

      2. Dr. Manhatten says:

        As a biologist, I have worked with many outstanding medicinal chemists, and I fully agree with your point. The knowledge and craftsmanship they bring to a program is irreplaceable. I witnessed far too many poor decisions over the years in big pharma that had to do with cutting corners (and securing bonuses for those who came up with the corner cutting programs) by “outsourcing” key areas on project teams. Outsourcing has its place, but the ability and experience of a med chemist guiding synthetic decisions cannot be outsourced.

        1. Hap says:

          It probably could be now (although you’d still lose the internal tacit knowledge of the program) because enough experienced and good med chemists have been fired that there could be places to outsource to that would have that experience, but that would cost money. Seed corn is much cheaper.

  7. anon says:

    Investors are happy. The stock prices has doubled in 4 years.

    1. GEge says:

      Join smaller biotechs, e.g. Vitae Pharmaceuticals doubled the stock price today! Probably also get axed soon.

  8. MedChemDesign says:

    I think what’s happening now is a shift toward design, a process that results from medicinal chemists, modelers, pharmacologists and biologists interacting with each other. Since medicinal chemists are just one component of this equation, it’s not surprising that some of them are being let go.

    1. Anon says:

      “I think what’s happening now is a shift toward design…”

      Oh dear. That’s very concerning given that most design work is based on hubris and false hypotheses that are “proven” by dredging tons of low quality data with low signal to noise.

      One day, when the design approach completely fails and the arrogant lose their jobs, truth-seeking science based on real experiments might come back into fashion.

      1. MedChemDesign says:

        Well, no one’s saying all design is good or that design-driven drug discovery should not be based on rigorous experiments. I am merely pointing out that that’s the paradigm that seems to be taking hold in pharma, and just because there may be bad examples of that paradigm does not mean there aren’t good ones. Nothing stops multiparameter optimization from being useful in principle, and the hubris in doing this would precisely be to believe that classical medicinal chemistry would be the only valuable contributing discipline.

      2. comp chemists says:

        I suggest you read up on the recent advances that have been made in computational chemistry (in particular free-energy methods) and that have been discussed in this blog. Physics-based predictions of potency, selectivity, solubility, and a number of other important end-points have reached a level of accuracy that is approaching that of experiment. Computational design and scoring is having a profound impact on structure-enabled, small-molecule drug discovery projects. That’s not to say necessarily that chemists should be laid off, but it does suggest that there is a much more effective and efficient way of getting to high-quality development candidates.

        1. Anon says:

          All completely useless if and when the target is wrong. As it is most of the time, according to actual clinical success rates.

          1. comp chemist says:

            Really, most of the time (>50% of the time), the target is wrong? That is not my experience. Are you possibly exaggerating?

          2. Anon says:

            Not only wrong but multiple targets. How many small molecules truly only have one target? Not many in my estimation.

        2. problem solved says:

          That’s fantastic! – it’s good to know that’s all solved now. Computing is so much easier than thinking or experimentally validating design ideas. I guess there’s no point in doing med-chem without a crystal structure and FEP now. Please forward the references – they’re not sponsored by software vendors by chance are they?

          1. comp chemist says:

            It’s amazing that there are still people out there who question the impact of computation in drug discovery. This reminds me of people who said that airplanes can never be designed using computer modeling. They turned out to be wrong and so will all the cranky old timers who say that computers can’t possibly do what a human can do. Nobody is saying you shouldn’t do experiments. That’s ridiculous. Of course you have to do experiments. Nobody is saying that all the problems have been solved. Of course they haven’t. It is however absolutely clear that there have been significant advances in computational chemistry to the point where a lot of “experiments” can be done on the computer. It’s also clear that this results in much higher quality compounds in much less time. It’s fine if you want to continue to stick your head in the sand and not believe that it’s possible to actually make advances in drug discovery. At the end of the day, you, like all the naysayers before you, will be proven wrong and you will be stuck in the past as the field leaves you behind.

          2. Anon says:

            The impact of comp chem is very clear: 50% decrease in Pharma R&D productivity every 9 years for the past 60 years. 99% decrease in total. Whether that’s despite comp chem, or because of it, I don’t know. And I don’t care, because either way, it’s not doing any good or making any positive difference whatsoever.

          3. Anon says:

            If comp chem is giving the right answers, then it’s clearly not asking the right questions as overall R&D productivity and ROI continues to plummet.

            Thus comp chem = OBMW (one big mindwank)

    2. Dr. Dubious says:

      I’ll smoke some of that!

  9. steve says:

    It’s just another step in the devolution of pharma companies from sources of innovation to pure sales and marketing organizations

  10. Anon says:

    Therapeutic antibodies or bust. In terms of safety, SMs are too risky.

    1. Hap says:

      And antibodies aren’t? Because messing with the immune system always ends well, like playing “Hide the Steak” with the Doberman next door.

      1. Hap says:

        Sorry – dumber than usual (the antibody doesn’t have to trigger an immune response). I still wouldn’t be sure that an antibody won’t cause an immune response, and then you can go get the A-1 sauce for the Doberman.

  11. Chris Lewis says:

    Johnson Matthey has opportunities for chemists in a number of areas. Feel free to check our website, or to send me a resume directly at:

  12. Eric says:

    Coincidentally, Nature Reviews Drug Discovery published a commentary online this week (behind a paywall – sorry!) which indicates greater than 50% of recent IPOs are small molecule companies. Someone must be investing in chemistry still. How much of it is outsourced is another question however.

  13. Bob says:

    This is just a continuation of cuts at Merck and will not be the last. Connect the dots with the previous announcement of a site opening in the SF Bay area and all the cuts were coming from NJ. The message is loud and clear Merck NJ. I feel for the people that just lost their jobs, but they may be thanking Merck that they released them now and not string them along for another few years before the rest are kicked to the curb. I’m sure they are all motivated…to get out.

  14. HNJC says:

    I also hear that Sanofi Oro Valley, Arizona was acquired by Icagen a few months ago, there are rumors of chemistry layoffs.

  15. Cytirps says:

    Derek, you have probably heard that some of your colleagues during the Schering era have been let go. Too sad how Merck completely destroy Schering research.

  16. nyc'er says:

    It looks like Schrödinger in New York City is hiring med chemists/drug hunters.

    1. Lucifer says:

      They are always pretending to hire.

  17. exGlaxoid says:

    Who needs chemists for new products when you can just keep raising prices on old ones? When that is ended via FDA/congress/generics/imports/etc then the companies might have to get back to innovation to make money again.

  18. Ody says:

    As organic chemists we are doing one big mistake, which probably derives from grad school. Our abilities to build molecules and identify properties it s not only useful to pharma companies. We can do literally everything and we can easily train ourselves to new aspects of science to tackle other material problems. One recent example in my career are new polymer compounds and OLED technology. So why are we still caring to join the big pharma industries, companies who do not respect us and think that we are so replaceable. The idea, deriving from our old professor, “total synthesis of blah blah blah, cure cancer”, is long gone. The new chemistry programs should concentrate in new material synthesis with various physical properties and not in “blah blah new reagent/disconnection to help pharma companies”.

    1. old timer says:

      well said!

    2. Dr. Dubious says:

      Agree! Time to move on. Let upper management figure out what to make next and then make it! Or maybe some of the biologists can do that.

  19. John Gatsios says:

    As a former Merck employee, I can assure you that Merck is among the worst of the worst corporations in the world. As they’ve eliminated over 40,000 jobs in the past decade, which affected hundreds of thousands of family members, the corporate officers are living lavishly. Ken Frazier, who should be in prison, instead is enjoying a $25 million annual income.

  20. Subas says:

    It is sad to hear of more layoffs in the US. If anyone is interested in still pursuing medchem, Bioduro is recruiting experienced medchemists:

Comments are closed.