A year into his postdoctoral fellowship, Eugene Cheung quit. Worked to the bone for dismal pay and constantly reminded of the precarity of his job prospects and immigration status, Cheung relinquished his coveted position at Harvard Medical School. And he hasn’t looked back. Within two months, the biomedical scientist landed a position at a biotech company, where he now works on gene-editing therapies for single-gene disorders and cancer. “I said, forget this. I deserve better,” Cheung says of his decision to bid academia farewell.

Credit: DrAfter123 / DigitalVision Vectors / Getty

Medical researcher Belinda Di Bartolo made a similar move two years into the pandemic and two decades into her academic career. She was spending weekends slaving away writing grants to win dwindling funding in a hypercompetitive system that, she realized, “could just replace me in an instant.” Her contract wasn’t going to be renewed, she had been discouraged from working from home through multiple lockdowns, and beneath it all was a pent-up frustration that basic science was not being funded like it once was, due to a push for more translational research. Reflecting on her decision six months later, Di Bartolo, now chief operating officer at an Australasian biotech start-up, feels a twinge of what might have been. “But it turns out being happy trumps that,” she says. “I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would.”

Oceans apart, the pair are part of a growing trend of researchers departing academia and making the jump into industry. At biotech start-ups and pharmaceutical companies, they are finding a flood of job opportunities, fulfilling, flexible work and supportive workplaces that offer better pay and don’t ask them to sacrifice their personal lives. Their research motivations remain the same, but the impact of their work feels more immediate. As Di Bartolo puts it, “I still ask, how does this happen and why. But now I get to ask, how can I help fix it.”

Shock to the system

The apparent exodus is a shock to the academic system that some researchers didn’t see coming but that others say has been palpable for quite some time — and is a trend only set to continue. “The majority of senior academics still don’t understand how fast this is coming,” says Daniel MacArthur, a population geneticist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. The upheaval will be particularly sudden in countries like Australia that have nascent biotech industries and where researchers are only just waking up to its potential, he adds.

Early-career scientists are not missing a beat, however. A seismic shift in attitudes amongst budding researchers has been underway for years, MacArthur says, whereby the “smartest, most talented trainees” are putting industry above academia in their careers. No longer is industry the ‘Dark Side’ in their eyes.

Immunologist Sreedevi Kesavan is one such example. From the outset of her career, Kesavan never considered industry a fallback option — it was her preferred career pathway “because it’s where stuff happens.” Her aspirations stemmed from her undergraduate experience at a Canadian university that facilitated internships in Vancouver’s flourishing biotech industry. She says her peers are no longer willing to sacrifice their mental health and well-being for low-paid, insecure academic careers when industry offers ample opportunities to push the boundaries of research. “You’re given the resources to explore your crazy idea and given the opportunity to give it your best shot,” says Kesavan, who has worked for multiple pharmaceutical companies. If academia wants to retain researchers, she adds, “they need to buck up and value the people they have.”

As academics are quickly realizing, the repercussions of this mass movement are set to stretch far beyond individual career choices. It could fundamentally reshape the research landscape, from basic science right through to clinical trials, shaking the foundation of the drug-development pipeline. “There is a very substantial risk of [academia] hemorrhaging the best and brightest young talent away from basic research or areas of research that are not naturally amenable to commercialization,” says MacArthur. A boon for industry, but where it leaves academia remains to be seen.

Industry’s appeal

The migration of health researchers and clinician–scientists into industry is not inherently a bad thing, some researchers argue. Some countries are in dire need of more entrepreneurial scientists who can kickstart home-grown biotech industries and create more sustainable research ecosystems. “What may be a bad thing in one place may be exactly what somewhere else needs,” says Yaw Bediako, an immunologist who founded the first biotech company in his native Ghana to capitalize on Africa’s untapped and unrivalled genetic diversity for cancer research.

Yaw Bediako founded Yemaachi Biotechnology in Ghana to respond to Africa’s pressing health challenges. Credit: Francis Kokoroko / REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Bediako says foreign research grants on which African scientists depend don’t respond to the continent’s most pressing health challenges. The alternative is establishing African biotech companies, which not only could drive innovation but, he hopes, will in time attract private investors to fund research with fewer strings attached and create job opportunities for local scientists. That, Bediako believes, could reverse the brain drain of African researchers moving overseas, a huge problem on the continent. “Who better to redefine Africa in the eyes of the world than African people themselves,” he says.

Although the choices of emerging leaders like Bediako are telling, what has really grabbed attention lately is the number of high-profile scientists flocking to industry. To some younger scientists, their collective departure affirms that academic life has lost its luster, with the appeal of high-impact team science in industry winning researchers over. “It’s one thing to know it on some level, [it’s] another to see your idols at top institutes leaving en masse,” said University of California San Francisco immunologist Colin Zamecnik on Twitter recently.

For Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and public health researcher, it wasn’t only the funding pressures or the heavy administrative burden of university-based research that wore him down. As a professor, he says, “you don’t have [the] flexibility to change” tack or pursue new ideas. The way academia counts success as publishing papers and winning grants also left Mina wanting, especially when his efforts to advocate for evidence-backed health policies during the pandemic were discouraged. “That’s just very dissatisfying when you want to change the world,” he says. Now chief scientific officer with a biotech software company, he says “one of the coolest things” about working in industry is the genuine teamwork among colleagues all working together toward a shared goal.

Cardiologist Sek Kathiresan’s academic exit also drew much attention. Like Mina, he found himself at a fork in the road during the pandemic, choosing to go all-in on a gene-editing company he co-founded to pioneer one-time therapies for cardiovascular disease. After spending a decade deciphering the genomic basis for risk and resistance to heart attacks, he felt he had reached a plateau in his research and was convinced he had an idea worth trying. “We had this opportunity to literally rewrite the genome for [heart] health,” says Kathiresan of the base editors developed by Verve Therapeutics that have moved from concept to early-stage clinical trials in just four years. “This could not have been done in academia, by any stretch of the imagination.”

But Kathiresan bemoans the false dichotomy between academia and industry, saying it should be more about what impact researchers want to have in their work. Too often, he says, people are “set in their ways and they just turn the crank on what they’ve been doing” rather than asking themselves, “Might I be better off — might the world be better off — with me doing something different?”

Whether or not industry is drawing more researchers, the writing has been on the wall for academia for quite some time (see chart). Then came the crunch of the pandemic. Job losses were swift, but so was the shift in sentiment among researchers who chose to walk away from academic careers after re-evaluating what mattered most in life. Rampant abuse hurled at outspoken scientists only added to the personal toll when workloads were sky high.

Many PhD students work long hours and experience stress, with seemingly little support on offer from universities. Source: Nature PhD Survey 2019.

Cheung says all 16 postdocs in his cohort have left academia for industry. “The exodus is real and it’s intense,” he says. “But” MacArthur counters, “the underlying structural trends that are both pushing people out of academia and pulling people towards industry, those were in place well and truly before COVID came along.”

Gender inequities

Research shows that despite initiatives to rejig the Australian research funding system, persistent gender inequities in funding outcomes are driving an exodus of women scientists out of academia. Fewer female applicants get funded, and less funding is awarded to women who do win grants. However, gender bias manifests in myriad other ways, not least in how women are credited less for their contributions even though research shows they have more original ideas.

Similar trends exist in the USA. One in five female academic oncologists surveyed in 2020 reported they were likely to leave academic research in the next five years. Add to that two years of the pandemic, and many physicians are on the brink of burnout. “Nothing has been done to retain women,” says Narjust Duma, a thoracic medical oncologist at the Dana–Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who led the study of women oncologists’ career intentions. “There’s a lot of talk but nothing has changed.”

This is why, she says, more of her colleagues are talking about leaving academia than ever before — because academia is not evolving with the times to support professional women, nor tackling gender bias in the workplace. Duma warns that their collective departure would have huge ramifications, not only for the next generation of doctors, but also in that research and patient care would suffer too. Women often lead physician training programs; they also tend to gravitate toward researching understudied topics in healthcare, such as pain management, palliative care, sexual health and cancer survivorship. “If those women leave academia, then we’re going to continue to have a significant knowledge gap” in those areas, Duma says.

Threats to independence

Another concern, raised by Amer Zeidan, a hematologist and clinical trialist at Yale University, is industry’s expanding clinical trial footprint. By offering better work conditions, industry is attracting not only physicians, but also clinical trial coordinators and regulatory managers — the ancillary staff who keep trials running. Those staff shortages have “caused huge strain on clinical trial operations in many academic centers,” says Zeidan. It also limits the trials doctors can offer their patients, he adds.

But the deeper issue, Zeidan says, is how industry is exerting more control over the ways drugs are used in clinical trials, dictating the trial design and deciding which control groups are used. Drug companies are also less willing to fund trials for investigator-initiated concepts or give academic researchers access to new drugs awaiting approval. “Nowadays, it’s becoming much more challenging,” Zeidan says, for investigators to conduct trials free from industry influence. “The field is seeing less and less independent clinical trial work in a rapidly changing academic environment.”

In the long run, Zeidan says this worrisome trend risks making clinical research less innovative, insofar as industry-run trials tend to yield less clinically meaningful results because they often use outdated medicines as comparators in a bid to show their drug candidate is superior. “We end up with trials that don’t necessarily ask the right questions,” he says.

Witnessing the departure of their peers, many researchers harbor concerns for how basic science might be gutted of skilled researchers if the pull towards industry prevails. Society at large also runs the risk of missing out on discoveries made in university labs and research institutes, which have greater agency to do exploratory research that is not bound to commercial interests. These publicly funded discoveries may not have any immediate, practical benefits but could seed future research or cross-pollinate adjacent fields.

“If this [exodus] continues, we’re going to lose the engine of basic and applied research,” says Cheung. Industry’s reputation for suppressing results is another of his concerns, should biotech and pharmaceutical companies absorb more basic science and preclinical research.

But the dearth of basic science is also partly a problem of academia’s own making. The failure to fund basic research was one of the reasons why immunologist Andreea Ioan-Facsinay switched gears in 2018. In her 15 years in academic research, she noted how funding priorities favoring translational research started depriving basic scientists of support, which, in turn, changed the research agendas they pursued. “I think that maybe this is threatening basic research more than the people leaving academia,” she says.

Now working for a biotech company on antibody-based therapies for chronic inflammatory diseases, Ioan-Facsinay says the academic world is going in the wrong direction. “How much you publish is the wrong incentive,” she says. In the Netherlands, where she is based, graduate students must publish four papers to obtain their PhD. Consequently, researchers are less inclined to collaborate with industry, she says, because involving industry invariably induces some delays in publishing results.

Academic research might be more open with its results than industry, but it is certainly not immune to problematic influences. The relentless pressure to churn out papers, which extends all the way through academic careers and which is rewarded with grants and promotions, incentivizes researchers to produce publishable, or some might even say grandiose, findings. Pharmaceutical companies, MacArthur says, in their defense, “tend to be much more rigorous and skeptical” about preclinical work because if a drug fails in clinical trials, the company’s profits are at stake.

Blurring the lines

Clearly, academia and industry both have their major shortcomings. But at some point, academia is going to have to grapple with the root causes driving researchers to leave in droves, in particular the unprofessional, abusive behavior of some senior researchers towards trainees. “There are deeply entrenched problems within the academic world and it will take a lot of inward looking from universities, from labs, from scholars, to resolve,” says Cheung.

To stem the flow of academic researchers into industry — or rather, to preserve the critical mass of basic science that sustains translational research — MacArthur says funding schemes and research organizations need to be overhauled. University-based research institutes need to be nimbler, purpose-built to foster innovative research and “not encumbered by the heavy administrative machinery,” he says. The rise of new funding models in the USA is encouraging, he adds, whereby tightly defined but well-funded organizations work on a specific research problem over a defined period of time, deliver results and then move on.

Although it is difficult to predict how current trends will play out, MacArthur says the end goal should be a research system in which academia and industry each have clear, distinct roles, and where the movement of researchers between the two is seen not as a ruthless competition for talent, but as a healthy back-and-forth that stimulates fruitful partnerships.

“That ecosystem is within reach,” he says. “A lot of these existing trends — however disruptive and dismaying they are at the moment — are pushing us in the direction of a clearer division” between academic organizations that should be laser-focused on early research and industry mostly driving translational research, “with lots of collaboration between them.”

Di Bartolo sees this as a potential upside too. She hopes that the wave of academics entering industry will help bridge the gap and blur the line between the two. But for that to happen, Mina says, academia needs to stop vilifying industry “when industry is what brings academic research to life.” Too often translational research breaks down at the point where academic research with commercial prospects needs to be transferred across to a company. The influx of scientists to biotech companies, Mina says, should accelerate research by spurring greater collaboration. “There is a massive, massive potential for this movement out of academia to be beneficial.”

As an example, Mina explains how his company, eMed, recently partnered with Scripps Research, a biomedical research institute in California, to help upscale its research studies. Using eMed’s health technology platform that was designed to connect people with physicians for at-home COVID-19 testing, Scripps is running a trial to understand why in some people viral levels resurge after antiviral treatment. “That’s going to quickly become one of the biggest, most informative studies to date on rebound after Paxlovid,” says Mina.

Putting his public health advocacy into action in this way, Mina says, was the biggest motivator for his move to industry, although he admits he will probably find his way back to academic research one day. And it is this ability for academics to move freely into industry and back again that is key to academia’s uncertain future, researchers say.

Right now, Mina says academia is doing a disservice to up-and-coming researchers by not enabling them to gain experience in industry during their training. “We shame people for even thinking about stepping out of academia,” he says. Instead, researchers should have the freedom to work for a biotech company or start their own, then bring back to academia what they learn, along with rich ties to form industry partnerships. “Let your people flourish in all different ways and [their success] will come back around.”