This tweet by ChemJobber caught my eye over the weekend. He’s referencing an article in the New Yorker on “The Bullshit-Job Boom”, which is a review of this new book by David Graeber at the London School of Economics. Graeber’s thesis is that there is a higher and higher fraction of the labor market occupied by jobs that either don’t have to be done or don’t really occupy a person’s full time, and ChemJobber was hoping that this wasn’t the case so much in chemistry.
For what it’s worth, I think he’s right. But right around the field there are plenty. Here’s an example from the book, from one of Graeber’s correspondents:
I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.
Yeah, I can definitely see that happening. A key thing to remember is that many of these aren’t “bad” jobs in the traditional sense – they’re not strenuous, dangerous, etc. They’re just. . .extraneous. No one (other than those holding them, and sometimes not even them) would feel much of a sense of loss if these positions disappeared. I’m reminded of a column many years ago (I’ve used this example before) by Mike Royko that he wrote when the city government of Chicago was trying to cut back its staff. He suggested going around and asking people what they do. If they could tell you something concrete and intelligible, he said, keep them. But if they said that they “facilitate” things (for example), or start off with “Well, it’s really hard to define”, then let them go. Those jobs would qualify under Graeber’s definition, I feel sure.
The larger the company you work for, the more of these things will be present – I think that’s certain. I think that one reason is that large organizations tend to be very much more into defined processes than smaller ones are, and as those processes get ever more detailed and defined and monitored, there’s a lot of box-checking that goes on. That’s a big category in Graeber’s classification of BS jobs, actually. His overall definition is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case“. His five categories are “flunky” jobs, where people are paid to stand around and make others look and feel important, “goons” who are there because other organizations have them and you have to keep up (his example is the PR staff at Oxford, which would still not be an obscure university otherwise), “duct tapers” who are there to fill gaps and ameliorate flaws that could be fixed more systemically (but aren’t), “box tickers” who go through vaguely important-looking motions, and “taskmasters” who manage people who don’t actually need another manager and also assign more BS for others to do.
In a large organizations, parts of the process exist mainly because they’re parts of the process; things are done because that’s the way that things are done. And it’s a human tendency to take refuge in this, especially in a business as uncertain as drug discovery. I have seen this, up close and personal, and if you’ve been doing this long enough, you have too. It’s the belief that “Well, if this project fails, we won’t get blamed for it because we did everything by the book”. There’s something useful down there – the idea that you should do the key experiments, investigate things properly, give a project a chance to really work and ditch it if it doesn’t. But barnacles attach themselves, and the end result is a feeling, conscious or not, that as long as the PowerPoint slides are polished enough, and everyone’s favorite assay is run, and everyone’s favorite managerial buzzwords are paid homage to, that it doesn’t matter so much if the project works or not because, y’know, the important parts got done anyway, right?
And that’s pernicious, because we’re not here to make lovely screening cascade slides and spout corporate phrases at each other. We’re here to discover stuff and make drugs, drugs that are effective enough for people to pay money for them, while not leaving a trail of wreckage in our wake. Things that make that process easier, more direct, and more likely to work are probably good, and things that make it harder and more circuitous are probably bad. But adding a fifth person to the safety incident reporting system team is helpful, you say. You’re not against safety, are you? Beefing up the corporate compliance staff is necessary; where would we be if we got in trouble? And the week-long Compliance Fair is coming up; who’s going to decorate the lobby and sit behind the tables handing out brochures, right? And there you go.