The nation’s life science research workforce is expected to remain stable this year rather than shrink like the broader tech sector and overall U.S. employment, after outgrowing the overall U.S. economy last year as it has for the past 20 years, a report by commercial real estate firm CBRE concluded.

The report, U.S. Life Sciences Research Talent 2023—released yesterday to coincide with the 2023 BIO International Convention being held in Boston by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization—found that the U.S. life-sci research workforce grew in 2022 to a record-high 545,000 people. That figure is nearly double (87%) the nearly 300,000 reported in 2002, and up 3.1% from 2021, year-over-year growth that reflected employer demand for life sciences research employees.

“Demand for life sciences research workers is above pre-pandemic levels,” Matt Gardner, CBRE advisory services life sciences leader, said in a statement. “We’re also seeing a closely balanced ratio of hiring to job cuts in the biopharma industry compared with the technology sector and the broader economy, which positions the life sciences to remain stable despite an economic downturn.”

Over the past two decades, the number of life-sci researchers has never declined despite the economy plunging into, then recovering from three recessions, “although a slowing economy could change this dynamic,” the report added.

Speaking with GEN earlier this year, Gardner acknowledged a slowdown in life sciences activity since financial markets turned bearish two years ago, especially for smaller biotechs, but added that the industry was far from being in retreat.

“If you were to ask those who are the financial stakeholders in life sciences, they’re making fewer decisions. They’re making them slower,” Gardner said. “A small-cap public company would have a difficult time raising a follow-on offering on Wall Street right now, and debt would be harder to come by than it was in the fourth quarter of 2021.”

“What that has meant to us is, if you take the point of view of the earlier stage life sciences company, there are still deals to be made, and there still is science to progress,” Gardner added.

Top 25 regional markets

CBRE also published a ranking of the top 25 regional markets for life sciences research talent. Not surprisingly, three established clusters top the ranking—Boston and neighboring Cambridge, MA, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area, then Washington, DC/Baltimore.

Boston/Cambridge tops GEN’s nationally-recognized A-List of Top 10 U.S. Biopharma Clusters, which is based not only on the size of the workforce but on additional criteria such as NIH, grant funding, venture capital financing, lab space inventory, and number of patents. [An updated list will be published later this year.] San Francisco is second, while Washington, DC/Baltimore are anchors of the “BioHealth Capital Region” of Maryland, Virginia, and the nation’s capital, which is ranked fourth by GEN—and has long positioned itself with the slogan, “Top 3 by 2023.”

Rounding out CBRE’s top 10, New York/New Jersey ranks fourth, followed by San Diego, Philadelphia, Raleigh/Durham, Los Angeles/Orange County, Seattle, and Denver/Boulder, CO. Philadelphia and Denver/Boulder showed the greatest year-over-year improvement in 2022 (up from eighth and 11th, respectively), as did Sacramento (ranked 15th, up from 17th) and Miami/Fort Lauderdale (20th), which didn’t make last year’s top 25.

CBRE’s rankings consisted of a score measured by the total number of researchers and graduates with life sciences expertise, and the density of talent, defined as the number of researchers, graduates, and people employed in professional, scientific, and technical services per capita.

Fastest growing regions

Between 2017–2022, 10th-ranked Denver/Boulder and three up-and-coming regions not usually counted as top bioclusters recorded the fastest growth in their total numbers of life sciences researchers. Denver/Boulder’s 35% increase was eclipsed only by 14th-ranked Atlanta (36%), while 19th-ranked Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, and Phoenix (which ranked outside the top 25) both tied with 33% growth—more than double the national average in that time period of 16%.

Phoenix also produced the fastest growth rate of new life sciences graduates, with 2,000 grads reported for 2021, up 91% from 2016. Additionally, the regions that produced the highest number of graduates in specialized fields were Washington DC/Baltimore (582 biotechnology grads) and the Bay Area (877 cell/cellular biology and anatomical sciences grads).

A key factor in the researcher growth shown by those regions was the presence in each of numerous research and higher education institutions, according to CBRE.

Also according to the report, the number of digital and analytics roles more than doubled, growing 101% over the past five years, a jump reflecting advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning. By contrast, the number of chemists fell 1.2%, compared with an 11.1% increase in the number of biology-based researchers.

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