GSK Roiled by Layoffs: 350 R&D Staff Cut; Scientists in Italy Stage a Strike

Last Updated Aug 5, 2008 12:07 PM EDT

Confusion continues at GlaxoSmithKline this morning as R&D employees attempt to figure out if they'll be receiving pink slips and their bosses attempt to keep everyone calm.

Tension at the company has been building since Chemistry World reported that GSK sought hundreds of job cuts internationally at its various R&D sites: Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, Upper Providence and Upper Merion in Pennsylvania, Harlow in the UK and Verona in Italy.

Things got so bad that at one point there may have been a brief strike by GSK scientists in Italy. If you look at the comments section of In the Pipeline, you'll see that "The Verona site has had a strike about it and their unions are still contesting it," according to one post. Says another, "The strike was a half day strike where most people stayed at home."

In the Pipeline's Derek Lowe reckons that "the smallest cuts are around 40% of the entire research staff at the various sites." He estimates 60 jobs will go from the oncology group in North Carolina.

GSK itself has denied this. A company rep told Ed Silverman at Pharmalot that only a "small number" of people in cancer research were being canned: "We have more than 1000 people working in oncology R&D. Around 20 roles in cancer research in RTP are being eliminated."

But the company's statement only covers Research Triangle, not GSK's other sites in Europe and Pennsylvania.

So how many jobs are going? Posters on Lowe's blog, who all seem to be GSK employees, are estimating 165 jobs are lost at Harlow and up to 40 at Verona.

Conservatively, the total seems to be in the range of 225 jobs internationally. But this Reuters report put the number at 350.

The confusion has been compounded by two things:

  1. GSK has broken the first rule of corporate transparency by not putting out a definitive statement describing what it's doing and how many people are affected. According to GSK's own web site, the layoffs have yet to rate a mention.
  2. GSK's senior management has made some unfortunate statements recently about how they perceive the value of R&D. According to Chemistry World:
GSK's head of drug discovery Patrick Vallance told a conference on 9 June that research teams will be divided into smaller, focused groups that would concentrate on a single disease area. The restructure is intended to stimulate innovation -- and such groups would be rewarded based on the value they create for the company, with 'disincentives' for destroying value.
"Disincentives" for destroying value? It sounds like he'll put your fingers in a cigar cutter if you drop a test tube. And CEO Andrew Witty recently told the Wall Street Journal:
The problem in drug discovery and development isn't the technology, he said, but a misunderstanding about the enterprise itself. "Drug discovery is not a process," he emphasized. Finding new drugs takes an eclectic mix of serendipity, scientific judgment, good decision-making and focus.
The notion that drug discovery is not a process will certainly come as a surprise to the 17,000 GSK scientists who previously thought they were involved in the process of drug discovery. Although Witty's comments now make a lot of sense -- with 350 fewer scientists, GSK's remaining staff will have to be a lot more serendipitous if they are to keep the pipeline flowing.