Scientists want employers who value data, evidence and science as they positively impact society and serve humanity.
For many scientists, their original interest in a science career came from an inborn delight in exploring the universe and a penchant for playing with the components of matter and life. They want to have fun while working in service of science and humanity. Fortunately, there are many employers encouraging such a cheery workplace culture.
The science is central, but the science does not happen if you don’t have a vibrant community, which is more than the science. One of the things companies should do is support scientists and allow them to play – AAA
For over 20 years, Science, (a peer reviewed scientific journal,) has surveyed its readership to identify and celebrate the best pharma and biotech companies as part of its annual Top Employers survey.
This survey received approximately 6,800 responses in the spring of 2023, encompassing the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Science website registrants, Science Careers registrants, volunteers from a social media campaign, and others who were invited to participate through their human resources departments. Companies were ranked using a number of statistical techniques, including frequency analysis, stepwise regression and discriminant analysis.
The results highlight what scientists and science-educated staff consider crucial for making employment decisions: respect for employees, patient focus, a science-driven and supportive culture, work-life balance, innovation mechanisms and professional development opportunities.
Perhaps most telling in this survey is how respondents saw the clear correlation between robust science and important patient outcomes. Indeed, one respondent wrote that their employer, international pharmaceutical corporation Incyte (#2), “values its people” and consequently produces “medicines that help patients with limited treatment options.”
The Role of STEM-educated Professionals and Academia
One of the biggest concerns for STEM-educated professionals outside of academia is maintaining their involvement with science and other scientists. Part of the cultural focus at Philadelphia biotech company, Spark Therapeutics, (#6) is emphasising the high stakes of scientific research. “We don’t follow the footsteps. We create the path,” says Federico Mingozzi, chief science and technology officer at Spark.
The company was the first to receive approval to treat genetic diseases with gene therapy in the United States. “There was a lot we didn’t know how to do, but we just worked together and we did it,” Mingozzi said.
The Spark Therapeutics team only managed this accomplishment, he said, because they respect their professionals and the profession of inquiry. “We are humbled by the science,” he adds. “We never believe that we know everything. This is how we characterise our culture.” The concept of humility carries forth into human resources practices.
Interestingly, this humility translates to appreciation for the unique skills and talents that STEM workers bring, no matter their formal qualifications, degrees, or disciplines. Steve Rees, senior vice president of Discovery Sciences at research-based biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca (#20), is a great example; Rees has risen through the ranks of several major pharma firms with only a bachelor’s degree.
To attract the best talent, top employers actively incentivise cultures reflecting the values of higher education environments familiar and desirable to scientists. “We focus on openness in our research,” says Rees.
The company’s employees publish hundreds of manuscripts each year, present at dozens of conferences and external forums and actively pursue strategic partnerships. “We do all of this to share our science and to build the profiles of our scientists so they have a public track record of delivery,” he notes. “It really is a place where scientists can work at the cutting edge, in a collaborative way, whilst maintaining that external profile and building their CV through traditional methods, to do great work and advance their careers.”
Following the North Star of Patients
One core philosophy held by many top employers is emphasizing the intertwined relationship (or “double helix”) of scientists and patients, where patient needs are the compass guiding the direction of research, and science is the wind sails driving it forward.
“Whenever we talk to scientists, we tell them we are focused on science and patients are the North Star,” says Mingozzi. “You can find it in everything we do at Spark.” In fact, of the five values that percolate throughout every team, project and decision at the firm, “demonstrate the respect you seek” and “champion the patient” often rise to the top.
Like many similar firms, Insmed gives patients the opportunity to meet and chat with scientists. This helps cultivate a robust and ambitious research agenda that ultimately moves the needle in patient outcomes. “Marrying the science and the patient energises our employees,” says Nicole Schaeffer, chief people strategy officer at Insmed.
“Whenever we bring in a patient to talk to people, they walk out of there more energised to go back into the lab and to think about how they can meet those challenges. It helps drive where we focus from a scientific perspective. It also helps our focus when it comes to our people, our most important asset.”
By focusing on the patient, Biocon Limited (#8), a Bangalore-based biopharmaceutical company, is able to produce insulin and other life-saving bio-similars with special focus on accessibility, something which resonates with employees and potential candidates. “People are motivated within Biocon to innovate things, making them affordable and reachable to more people, but at the same time we are finding ways to make these products better for patients to use,” says Sandeep N. Athalye, chief development officer at Biocon Limited. “The company’s purpose, vision, and patient centricity resonate well with people and attract a lot of talent to Biocon.”
Swiss agro-tech corporation Syngenta Group (#5) employs 59,000 people across more than 100 nations with the ever-challenging goal of feeding the nearly 8 billion people on Earth. It’s this critically important objective that drew Trevor Hohls, global head of Seed Development, from an associate professorship at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa to a career in industry.
“For many of us in agriculture, we are all working to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as global hunger and sustainability, including addressing the impacts of climate change,” he says. “Our employees are deeply and personally connected to many of those topics, and so it really helps to create a very cohesive team.”
The role of creativity
The number one characteristic of a top employer, for the past several years, is being an innovative leader in the industry. That can take many forms. In many of the top employers, there are incentives to foster ingenuity and creative thinking, from competitions and forums to programmes where employees can propose new projects and apply to get them funded.
Most of the top pharma and biotech firms agree that the return on investment for unleashing scientific talent is significant. Not only is there the potential to develop revolutionary medical interventions, but creative thinking encourages staff to reach for new heights in problem-solving, providing a guaranteed return to the organisation.
Some of the top employers attract scientific talent by demonstrating values that prioritise inventiveness and creativity. Biocon, for example, seeks to understand how everyone in the “patient ecosystem” interacts with its products, connecting to patients while also reaching physicians, nurses and pharmacists to see how it can better serve these stakeholders.
Throughout the year, the questions: ‘What are your problems? What is your wish list?’ collects information and feeds it back to Biocon’s development teams. By studying how drugs are used and prescribed, Biocon has identified opportunities to reduce waste, increase efficiency and reduce cost. In another example, it surveyed hospital pharmacists regarding their major pain points.
A big concern they found was a lack of storage space in the fridge. Biocon responded to this issue by designing a larger vial size for a cancer drug, thus increasing available shelf space by catering to the needs of the hospital pharmacists. This type of high-level, multi-dimensional problem-solving is prized by STEM job candidates, because in many ways it mirrors the academic ethos.
2023 Top Employers Survey Methodology
As has been done for several years, a white sheet describing the survey and project timeline was sent to both public relations and human resources contacts in the biotech and pharma industry in the AAAS database several weeks prior to launching the online survey. This year’s web-based survey was conducted from March 1–31, 2023.
A mixed methodology was used again to recruit participants for this year’s survey. The first part of this methodology included emailed invitations to roughly 42,000 individuals located worldwide; these individuals were AAAS members, Science website s and Science Careers registrants.
Several social media posts were also used to promote the survey to end users. The second part of the methodology included several email blasts to approximately 225 human resource (HR) contacts at industry firms and biotech/pharma advertising agencies from the Science Careers sales database.
This report is based on a total sample of approximately 6,800 completed surveys: 97% from an email campaign to HR contacts and advertising agencies and 3% were from the end-user campaign.
“It needs to be prioritised and it needs to be rewarded,” says Patrick Mayes, group vice president and head of Biology at Incyte. “You have to have an environment where scientists are encouraged to go out, be willing to take risks, try new things and stick their neck out. They have to have a solutions mind-set.” This culture is cemented not by words but by action from executives at Incyte and other top employers. They demonstrate that bold experimentation is welcomed and supported and comes with safety.
“We are empowering scientists to be creative and we remove structural barriers, such as bureaucracy and extensive managerial reporting lines so scientists can thrive. There is no ceiling for those who are motivated and have great ideas,” adds Mayes.
Benefits of AI and machine learning
In the past year, the public’s admiration and awareness of artificial intelligence (AI) has skyrocketed, due in no small part to the proliferation of generative AI tools such as ChatGPT. However, for years in the life sciences sphere, there has been heavy funding and exploration of AI, machine learning and deep learning. It’s already having a big impact, and on launching products, but being able to actually prescribe how those products are going to perform going forward, driven by machine learning–type algorithms.
These algorithms are necessary, given the extremely complex variations in environmental conditions and genetics. All the sources of variation have to be accounted for and the best way to do that is to evolve the existing pipeline and help de-risk farming by taking advantage of these technologies.
Walking the talk on diversity, equity, and inclusion
To ensure bold ideas, top employers have to be safe harbours for their staff. Psychological safety is absolutely critical for people feeling comfortable asking tough questions and putting forward different points of view, which is why top employers realise that commitment to diversity and inclusion is so important and swift responsiveness to employee needs.
Since top employers recognise that good ideas can come from anyone at any time, they view diversity, equity and inclusion not as a public relations strategy, but rather as a strategy enabling humans to advance humanity by bringing talented individuals from a range of different backgrounds together.
When diversity, equity and inclusion are ingrained in the pillars of an organisation and impact every decision, the results are transformative for patients and employees. Walking the talk is important, putting the money where the mouths are. Many companies profess about patient-first values and taking care of their workforce, but most fall short.
Choosing an Employer
When deciding where to build their careers, scientists have thousands of pharma and biotech companies to select from. For many working at the top employers, this comes down to culture. Will the culture of the company nurture their organic curiosity? Will it allow them to play and explore? Will it encourage them to leverage their scientific skills in a meaningful and powerful way?
Why the Winning Companies were Chosen
Ultimately, top scientists choose their employers and Science’s readers chose these top employers because they are aligned with their values, goals and culture. It isn’t always obvious, but when staffs feel and know they are truly appreciated, the relationship is mutually beneficial and beneficial to science as a whole and changing people’s lives in different ways.