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April 23, 2006
You Can't Win If You Don't Play
I enjoyed one of the recent comments to the "Why All the Gloom" post, where an IP lawyer mentions what people at the small startups told him: namely, that managers had figured out that by saying "No" they were right all the time, while saying "Yes" had a much lower chance of success.
I know just what he's talking about. You can have an entire career in the drug industry, just sitting around telling people that their ideas aren't going to work. And more than nine times out of ten, you'll be right. Fortunetellers and stockpickers should have such a record! So what's the problem?
Well, the problem is, the whole industry depends on those times when someone's idea actually works. For that to happen, chances have to be taken, risks run. Being in charge of reluctantly-killing-off-once-promising-projects has a lot more job security, but someone has to go and make something happen once in a while.
One problem is, I think, that some companies kill things off for a long period until the situation gets more and more desperate. Then they try to run with whatever's in the clinic at the time. Some of those projects will, no doubt, be worse bets than some of the things that were killed off through excess caution a few years before. But if you didn't let a few of those loose, you eventually get stuck with what you have.
That's what's so nerve-wracking about doing pharma research. It's like playing tournament poker: the blind bets keep going up, so if you don't get out there and play some of your hands, you'll be eaten alive. If you convince yourself that none of your cards are worth anything, you're going to have a short night of it. I say, take Francis Crick's advice: don't believe in your own negative arguments so much. Recognize that every experiment, every program, every drug has plenty of reasons why it shouldn't work. Be aware of them, sure - but be aware that everything successful once had the same questions buzzing around it, too. Something has to work - right?
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