WASHINGTON, D.C.—Can industries that have laid off large numbers of scientists and other technically trained workers credibly claim to worry about an "increasing STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] skills gap" in the United States? Apparently they think so, as demonstrated at an event entitled "STEM Saves Lives" held 22 January at the National Press Club, under the auspices of U.S. News & World Report and the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry.

John J. Castellani, PhRMA's president and CEO, alluded to the gap during an address to the group, as did several other speakers. Those speakers raised a number of familiar points, including the hoary claim that U.S. students "lag behind" other countries, such as China, according to persuasively disputed statistics from Shanghai. (These claims never explain why the United States cannot be judged by its own highest-scoring city.) The forum highlighted the pharma industry's efforts to improve science education in the United States—a worthy goal regardless of anyone's relative performance on highly criticized tests—and the announcement of a report on those activities.

When asked by this reporter to explain the relationship between the purported gap in available workers' STEM skills and the industry's enormous layoffs—which includes many scientists and other highly skilled technical workers—neither Castellani nor John C. Lechleiter, chairman, president, and CEO of Eli Lilly and Company, provided a meaningful answer.

The industry is being "reshaped," and its "structure has changed a lot," Lechleiter said. What one misses by "looking at employment" is the emergence of "many small partners," and a number of them are startup firms founded by entrepreneurs with big pharma experience.

In the "ecosystem surrounding" the remaining large companies, "if you look at just employment [you] don't see what disciplines are rising and falling," Castellani added.

Of course, "looking at employment" is exactly what those laid-off scientists who haven't yet scored a startup tend to do, often from a distance. Many of those laid-off scientists remain unemployed and, as we recently noted, the pharmaceutical ecosystem now includes increasing numbers of scientists working in contingent positions.

Pharmaceutical companies are also "active in the immigration debate," said Lechleiter, adding that companies "have to go where the talent is," which, according to the context of that statement, apparently is overseas.

Thanks to the continuing downsizing of pharmaceutical companies in the United States, however, it appears that a lot of that talent is right here at home, looking for work.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.