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Why It’s Time to Retire the Term “Life Sciences”

Opinion

Xconomy Seattle — 

I originally thought about titling this piece “Life Sciences, Biosciences, BioPharma, Biotech, and Healthcare: What’s the Difference?” but that was simply too unwieldy. Many people use these terms interchangeably without thinking about what they specifically refer to, and which types of jobs and activities they encompass. Are they all the same thing? I don’t think so, and using the wrong term often leaves many of us swimming in a sea of confusion. Let me illustrate my concerns by sharing some definitions taken from the Free Dictionary Online:

Life Science: “Any of several branches of science, such as biology, medicine, anthropology, or ecology, that deal with living organisms and their organization, life processes, and relationships to each other and their environment. Also called bioscience.”

BioPharma: Surprisingly, this widely used term is not found in this dictionary or the Merriam-Webster online dictionary. I use it frequently to mean biotechnology and/or pharmaceuticals, but where I don’t want to assign something to either subcategory. Biopharmaceutical did make it into the dictionary, defined as “(Biochemistry) of or relating to drugs produced using biotechnology”, but this is not tantamount to biopharma.

Bioscience: Another name for life science.

Biotechnology: “The use of microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeasts, or biological substances, such as enzymes, to perform specific industrial or manufacturing processes. Applications include the production of certain drugs, synthetic hormones, and bulk foodstuffs as well as the bioconversion of organic waste and the use of genetically altered bacteria in the cleanup of oil spills. Also, the application of the principles of engineering and technology to the life sciences; bioengineering.

Healthcare: “The prevention, treatment, and management of illness and the preservation of mental and physical well-being through the services offered by the medical and allied health professions.

If you find some of these definitions somewhat vague you’re not alone, and a few fit nicely as subsets of the others. Biotechnology, for example, can be included under Life Sciences and could also constitute a subset of Healthcare. Let’s look at an alphabets worth of groups that exist in this realm. Where would you place them among the terms defined above?

A. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies

B. Med tech companies

C. Health IT companies (e.g. digitized medical records)

D. Makers of diagnostic kits

E. Doctors, nurses, hospitalists, physician assistants

F. Medical technicians (run clinical assays, process pathology samples)

G. Paramedics

H. Other hospital workers (accountants, maintenance, coders, billers, communications)

I. Intellectual property attorneys and patent agents

J. Medical supply houses

K. Contract research and manufacturing organizations

L. Agriculture, fishing, and forestry

M. Political lobbying firms and trade organizations (e.g. PhRMA, AMA)

N. Global health organizations (e.g. PATH)

O. Charitable disease organizations (e.g. Michael J. Fox Foundation)

P. Contract DNA sequencing labs

Q. Makers of over-the-counter health items, like vitamins, band aids, and nutraceuticals

R. Pharmacists

S. Naturopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists

T. University professors in anthropology, biochemistry, ecology, population biology, etc.

U. Deal makers (university technology transfer officers, business development folks)

V. Government workers in Medicare, Medicaid, Affordable Care Act

W. Plant breeders (e.g. developers of Golden Rice; engineering pest resistance)

X. Brewers and wine makers employing live organisms to do fermenting

Y. Zoo workers and animal breeders

I think that virtually all of these categories could be lumped together under the term “Life Sciences”, and for me that’s a problem. The term encompasses so many different elements and jobs that it’s nearly worthless, a catchall phrase that obscures the relative contributions of its various components. As a result, it muddies the message that many speakers are hoping to convey. A 2010 paper out of Washington State University commented on the complexity of categorizing the Life Sciences sector, noting that, “the life sciences are a broad collection of all technologies based on biology, thus inherently complex due to their living nature. In addition to human medical sciences, a host of other scientific fields from agriculture to zoology are included in the broad scope of the life sciences….. Such a diffuse sector makes for difficulty in traditional economic studies.”

My primary concern revolves around this last point, the use of this term to describe job numbers or economic output in the context of growth or decline. The phrase “Life Sciences” is so overly broad that it should be given a comfortable retirement and dropped from everyday usage. I frequently read about how well the “Life Sciences” are doing where I live, and for some of these subgroups (e.g. global health projects) I have no doubt it’s true. However, it obscures the fact that biotech has not been doing particularly well here over the past dozen years. There are few local job openings, with research positions in particular being difficult to come by. I think some people use the term “Life Sciences” because they’re trying to obfuscate this reality and shift attention away from it. I’m not a fan of this approach because you can’t develop a plan to address a problem that hasn’t been acknowledged.

An Internet search turned up only a few legacy examples where using the term “Life Sciences” still seems appropriate (but could still easily be replaced with other descriptors). Washington State’s Life Science Discovery Fund grants money to a wide spectrum of companies and organizations, so the use there seems reasonable. On Wall Street, the term is used by a number of mutual funds and VC firms, and some of their investment portfolios (e.g. the Burrill Life Sciences Capital Fund III) really do cast a wide net. In the case of mutual funds, a potential investor can look at a detailed breakdown of investments in the annual report to see just how diverse a fund is. The Janus Global Life Sciences Fund, while heavily weighted towards biopharma and medical devices, does include investments in a small amount of other sectors, such as hospitals, diagnostic kits, and physician practice management. However, based on its current holdings this could just have easily been named the Janus Global Biomedical Fund without misleading investors.

Vague biomedical descriptors extend beyond the term “Life Sciences”. Many organizations put together yearly lists predicting where future job growth is expected to be. These categories, once again, are so overly broad that it’s hard to believe that there isn’t a huge range of hiring probabilities within these descriptions. For example, the Website 24/7 Wall St. reported (using numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics) in 2012 that “Natural Science Managers” was a job category that offered excellent prospects for people who can “direct and supervise research projects for biologists, physicists, and chemists”. It’s not clear whether these future jobs are expected in academia, in industry, or both. I’ve worked in biomedical research for decades, and have never met anyone who introduced himself or herself as a Natural Science Manager. I don’t think of job prospects within these three disciplines as being equivalent, especially given the huge number of Big Pharma layoffs seen over the past five years, with R&D shrinking at nearly every company. In addition, I think the recent Federal budget sequester diminished job prospects in this category within academia as well. Despite this, some 33,500 job openings were predicted between 2010-2020, with a median annual wage of $116,020. Can we really rely on these predictions?

The use of ill-defined terminology has parallels in consumer products, where a “lifetime warranty” is often as worthless as the paper it’s printed on. In the food industry, terms like “natural” and “organic” often get bandied about without much regard for what they really signify. The FDA discourages companies from using the term “natural” as it is essentially meaningless with no formal definition. Despite this, the word is deliberately and widely misused as a way of tricking consumers into thinking a food is in some way healthier than items not bearing this label. The word “organic”, in contrast, now has a very clear legal definition that consumers can rely upon after being widely abused in the past.

The tactic of lumping together a variety of items under a wide umbrella shows up in personal finance, where again it obscures details that might be useful. Your stockbroker uses this approach to let you know how much your investments went up (or down) last year. While lumping gives you a helpful overall number (e.g. your portfolio was up 7% last year), most of us would want to drill down into the details to see how the individual components performed. This is actionable information that would enable you to cull underperformers, but you can’t do that if you only have a single number in front of you.

Another example of how lumping obscures important numbers is seen in minimum wage statistics. Steve Forbes pointed out in a recent column that “the average income of households with a minimum-wage worker is more than $53,000, and within a year of hiring, two-thirds of those who start at the minimum wage receive a raise.” I don’t doubt these numbers are true, but they are also highly misleading. As written, it makes it seem that families with minimum wage workers are doing OK financially, especially since the average family income in the US is also slightly more than $53,000. So what’s the problem? What you don’t see in these numbers is what happens if a family is dependent upon a single minimum wage earner. According to the Center for Poverty Research, “An individual working full time at minimum wage will make enough to live above the poverty line. However, if he or she is the sole earner for a family of four, that income is only 65 percent of the federal poverty guideline.” The median family income for families with a single mother (many of whom earn the minimum wage) is just $23,000; single parents account for 40 percent of low-wage workers in the US, and the poverty rate was about 44 percent for children in female-headed families. The average wage of households with a minimum wage worker is an illusionary number, and I think it’s deliberately used to obscure the economic difficulties that many minimum wage workers actually experience.

Don’t follow the example of Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, who famously said of his speeches, “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.” Strive for clarity in your writings and oral presentations. Be careful to choose a word or phrase that best illustrates your actual meaning. Think twice the next time you want to use the term “Life Sciences”. I’d make a strong effort to shy away from this catchphrase since those hearing the term will, in all likelihood, not have a distinct picture of your intentions and exact meaning. And if you hear someone use this phrase, ask him or her to clarify exactly what group(s) it is that they are referring to. Words and phrases go in and out of popular usage all the time. I’d like to see “Life Sciences” tossed onto the scrap heap of expressions, like “new normal” and “as if”, that have simply outlived their usefulness.

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  • Ed Berger

    Stewart – Language can be ambiguous; get over it. When “life sciences” as a category ceases to be meaningful and useful much of the time, people will stop using it. The boundaries of the term are vague because the boundaries of the activities it encompasses are vague.

  • Curt Becker

    No.. Please… Broad terms are good. Currently I describe myself as someone who develops and commercializes tools for the life sciences or life science workers. You don’t expect me to say I develop and commercialize tools for A. Pharmaceutical and Biotech Companies, D. Makers of Diagnostic Kits, K. Contract Research and Manufacturing Organizations, L. Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry, N. Global Heath Organizations, O. Charitable Disease Organizations, P. Contract DNA Sequencing Houses, T. University Professors in Various Diverse Departments, W. Plant Breeders, X. Brewers and Wine Makers and Y. Zoo Workers and Plant Breeders… and of course you completely missed Departments of Justice for instance… think DNA testing. No… please.. I often have to describe my company in 50 words or less… Lets keep Life Science thank you!

    • Elliott Johnson

      That would be the longest business card ever.

  • San Diego Recruiter

    Broad works well. As a “life Sciences” Executive Recruiter, this terminology fits most of my assignments well and discreetly.

  • Glenn Hampson

    Your point is well taken. How can we measure something so broadly defined? This isn’t a “get over it” matter as Ed states: our language has a very real and very direct impact on policy—and our ability to create the right policies and measure their effectiveness is only a part of this impact. In fact, I would argue that this issue is even broader—that the term “science” itself has been appropriated (and misappropriated) by so many endeavors that the science brand has been diluted, and this dilution affects public faith in and understanding of science. Maybe this could be the topic for a follow-up Xconomy article.