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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 1, 2007

Run! Anthropologists!

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Posted by Derek

You know that I’m on a long airline flight when I start blogging about something I’ve read in an in-flight magazine. I’m somewhere over the Great Plains as I write this, and American Airlines is telling me that drug companies need anthropologists to help them manage their scientists.

If they’d left it at that, I probably would have nodded my head. If you can do field work with savage Amazon tribes, you could probably feel right at home observing some lab corridors I've worked in. But no, since this was (like most airline magazine pieces) geared to the needs of middle managers, we get a brief case history:

A new CEO at Pfizer Pharmaceutical (sic, and boy, that narrows it down, doesn’t it?) wanted company scientists to operate differently, but they balked. Anthropologist Marsha Shenk asked them what they’d define as a more effective operation. The scientists realized that ever since they were grad students, they’d been in business to keep their projects funded for as long as possible – because in science, funding is a status symbol. But in business, it’s more efficient to kill projects that don’t show potential for big financial payoffs. About-face! They moved from judging themselves by how long they could string a project along to how quickly they could quash it.

Well, all right, then! We should be seeing some results from that innovative Pfizer approach real soon now, don’t you think? Honestly, though, this passage makes me want to bury my head in my hands. Where to begin?

Let’s see. . .how about we start by pointing out that grad students generally don’t worry much about keeping their projects funded, once the grant application is approved, which is mostly the boss's problem. Grants are written for entire programs of research, and a large graduate group will have several going on simultaneously. The folks working on one project aren’t competing with the ones working on a different one, since they’re funded through different means.

Now let’s try that “funding is a status symbol” line out. I can see how this was an anthropologist’s work, but we’re not talking about feather headdresses (or fancy cars). Funding is indeed a status symbol for professors, but for their students? Their status tracks with the name of their professor, the department they’re in, the perceived hotness of the project they’re working on, and so on. And what does this have to do with industrial drug discovery? Most lab heads and bench scientists don’t spend much time on budgets for individual projects. The money’s there. The company knows about how many programs it can run, with a reasonable number of people on each one. You're working on one of them, or another one of them, and when you're through you'll work on yet another.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no competition to keep your program alive. That’s the main way that this whole anthropological excursion makes sense. But project leaders want to keep their teams going because they want to deliver, not just for the sheer sake of keeping things going. (You come across people once in a while who have their priorities confused on this, but that tends to get straightened out after it gets noticed by higher management). There's always a case to keep going. Hope does little more than spring eternal, and I’ve never seen a drug discovery program that didn’t think it could solve its problems if it just had a little more time. That’s the thing that spins projects out – they all have problems, and they’re all trying to solve them.

Ah, now we get to the "big financial payoff" part. So, it’s more efficient to kill the losers off, is it? Who knew? You’d think that companies would think about the financial prospects for a drug before they even started a project. . .and you know, here outside the pages of in-flight magazines, that’s just what they do. The projects that don’t look like they could pay off don’t get started in the first place, so you’re left with a bunch of projects, all of which could be profitable if they’d just work. Now perhaps a team of anthropologists can come in and tell us which ones will.

And as quickly quashing . .well, just as there's always a reason to keep going, there are always plenty of reasons to stop. Every single major drug I've ever heard of has been near death more than once. If you make killing things your priority in drug discovery, you risk killing off everything. Remember, the overwhelming majority of drug projects die at one point or another as it is.

But we’re supposed to think that this strategy hit the Pfizer scientists like a hot sizzling bolt of truth. They fell to their knees, confessed their project management sins, and resolved to lead new lives. Anyone at Pfizer want to bear witness for us unenlightened types?

Comments (23) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Drug Development | Life in the Drug Labs


1. kiwi on August 2, 2007 2:10 AM writes...

argh my eyes! and your 's

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2. Anonymous on August 2, 2007 2:13 AM writes...

hmm i dropped a html close italics at the end of that, but it didn't seem to work

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3. Derek Lowe on August 2, 2007 7:58 AM writes...

Sorry about that dropped tag - I put that entry up late last night (well, at least it was late by my internal clock). Now I'm awake and checking my e-mail, and there's not a soul around. Since I'm just out there for a couple of days, I'm staying on EST as much as possible.

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4. tom bartlett on August 2, 2007 8:07 AM writes...

I think anthropology is kind of interesting, if you get a practitioner who isn't an idiot, that is.

But, it seems they've picked the wrong target. I would be most interested to gain insight into why recent Pfizer CEO's feel such a strong urge to utterly destroy the company. Could it be they "sorta" understand sales and marketing, but don't comprehend the first thing about R and D? Maybe biotech CEO's should be exposed to the research process first hand for a little while during their education. Perhaps that would help.

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5. A. Nonymous on August 2, 2007 9:44 AM writes...

The other people in my lab have started to complain about my feathered headdress, but it sure impresses the heck out of the anthropologists.

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6. Tweak0 on August 2, 2007 10:05 AM writes...

I think there is something to that. As an academic scientist transitioning to industry, I hope there is less "faith" or "bais" in industry. Too much "basic" science is interested in making the data fit the hypothesis, not trying to prove the null hypothesis. My own field is full of labs that have an obvious bias to find the "sexy" mechanism for action for their protein and have it involved in a "important" disease.
I think this is an understandable bias, but one that needs to be recognized continually. Perhaps the problem in academia is that once you can pass your "hand-picked" results that fit your hypothesis and managed to publish it, you are done. The standard and benchmark is publication, not necessarilly reproduciblity or if it is right.
Possibly if the bias to get the "right" results was tempered with the thought that tweaking the data (which everybody does in academia) to fit the hypothesis could lead to an important consequence, such as failure in a later point in the pipeline, people might think twice.
So maybe there is something to breaking the grad-school train of thought.

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7. pc on August 2, 2007 10:10 AM writes...

Regarding killing the projects as early as possible, the other day I was browsing through Business Week and there's an article about Merck. It mentioned that they've implemented a policy to reward folks who do just that but short of details. I'd imagine they have some sort of criteria there for such reward (of "failure"). One immediately jumping out of my mind is a really bad toxicity profile for the candidate compound. Any insider that can comment in a bit more details?

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8. SRC on August 2, 2007 11:51 AM writes...

Possibly if the bias to get the "right" results was tempered with the thought that tweaking the data (which everybody does in academia)

Tweak0, I take exception to that assertion. I'd have had a grad student's guts for garters if I'd caught him tweaking data. I think the problem you've identified is much more prevalent on the softer side of science, especially in molecular biology, which has a real problem because of the often-encountered difficulty of reproducing and/or falsifying results. (Reproducibility problems can be attributed to biological variability, cell line variations, whatever, and no one loses face.)

Data tweaking is not prevalent in chemistry, because it's generally much more possible to reproduce results, and fewer excuses will fly for irreproducibility. Chemists encountering irreproducibility tend not to marvel at the complexity of nature, but instead assume someone screwed the pooch.

And Pfizer must be nuts. They're getting tips on running research from someone in a "I understood there would be no math involved" field?

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9. DrSnowboard on August 2, 2007 11:52 AM writes...

Sounds like the the Pfizer CEO has been reading management consultancy literature from about 5-7 years ago, as 'Fast-to-fail' or 'Fail often, fail fast, fail cheap' was a mantra spouted around then ( from a Tom Peters tome, perhaps?). It certainly got incorporated in GSK pep talks, along with a peppering of Vision, and no shortage of paradigm shifts....

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10. Jose on August 2, 2007 1:10 PM writes...

Ughh. This is the kind of stuff makes me ill. Corporate management consultant double-speak applied to research = an even higher rate of failures. Someone should get some fancy brass plaques minted (to adorn the entrance to all biotech/pharma bigwig boardrooms) that simply says, "Research is NOT building widgets, and it DOESN'T scale or behave like it."

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11. Tweak0 on August 2, 2007 1:28 PM writes...

Fair enough, I AM a soft scientist, so that's what I know.

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12. milkshake on August 2, 2007 1:47 PM writes...

Dressing up the shalowness

The purpose of the management-speak, periodically refreshed twith the latest jargon from "management theory" and now anthropology serves the same purpose as the psychobabble of New age - the purpose is to lend the air of profundity to a pure wind.

The problem is that when some arrogant overpaid imbecile in Pfizer HQ ruins their own research productivity, it will have no effect whatsoever on the company productivity for the next 15 years. It is like in USSR, the apparatchiks know not what they are managing and are dentirely ecoupled from the consequences of their actions.

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13. CC on August 2, 2007 1:59 PM writes...

Perhaps the problem in academia is that once you can pass your "hand-picked" results that fit your hypothesis and managed to publish it, you are done. The standard and benchmark is publication, not necessarilly reproduciblity or if it is right. Possibly if the bias to get the "right" results was tempered with the thought that tweaking the data (which everybody does in academia) to fit the hypothesis could lead to an important consequence, such as failure in a later point in the pipeline, people might think twice.

I absolutely concur, and it's one of my favorite things about industry to be under pressure to get the right answer, not the publishable answer. I'm a molecular biologist also, though; as someone notes, chemistry may be different.

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14. SRC on August 2, 2007 2:19 PM writes...

Milkshake touches on an issue that I've debated internally for years: do people implementing these management fads actually believe in them, or just adopt them to look like they're doing something when they have no concrete idea of what else to do?

Put more bluntly, are they stupid or cynical? (Not mutually exclusive possibilities, of course.)

What do you guys think?

Related question: why does the Street lionize those adopting these fads? (Six Sigma, I'm looking at you.)

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15. milkshake on August 2, 2007 3:22 PM writes...

You question can be re-worded as: "Are you guys really that ignorant - or are you just indifferent to what you are actually saying?

The answer: "I don't know - I don't care"

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16. Polymer Bound on August 2, 2007 8:59 PM writes...

pc: I saw the same article... I think the point is that you get rewarded for doing fast and good science. If you're able to kill a compound or target early in the development cycle, you're going to get rewarded for saving the company money. Companies already heavily reward scientists for pushing a compound forward, but many neglect the scientists who do a good job stopping a bad one in its tracks.

Of course, if you encounter a difficult problem, throw up your hands and call it "impossible," you probably won't have a happy bonus season...

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17. jason alcazar on August 3, 2007 9:53 AM writes...

I'd prefer they take those Anthropologist salaries and use them as some grants for the poor.

home medical equipment

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18. lurker on August 3, 2007 11:41 AM writes...

Anthropologists might help in some situations where certain poor behaviors become institutionalized, but I think a big problem in science and R&D is that we'll never know if we have the right answer. Just look at how many scientific theories have been overturned, even in the hard sciences like physics. We can only get to a good enough answer for the time and resources we put in. A little more time and resources on a project might actually turn an excellent fail-fast decision into a blockbuster story of persistence despite the odds. We could be on the cusp, or we could be a long way from solving a problem, and we never know unless we succeed. A recent example of fail-fast vs. persistence is Novartis and aliskiren - persistence led to creation of Speedel. And I'm sure you all know of other such examples.

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19. Flanders on August 3, 2007 8:27 PM writes...

Please stop talking about Pfizer. They are a bunch of outsourcing hacks who have destroyed thousands of peoples lives.

Hey, what about JNJ or Astrazeneca?

I get the feeling you're a character out of a George Orwell novel. How big are those checks that big Pharma and the A-C-S give you to keep up the deranged happy talk?

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20. Anonymous BMS Researcher on August 4, 2007 6:13 AM writes...

SRC on August 2, 2007 2:19 PM writes...
> Six Sigma, I'm looking at you

Two comments about Six Sigma:

1. Over Thanksgiving break 2006 at the home of my mother-in-law I saw a Dilbert strip about Six Sigma. The following week back a work when I heard plenty of Six Sigma talk from our management I had to suppress my snickering.

2. A recent Business Week COVER featured a piece about how Six Sigma nearly destroyed the innovation culture at 3M and their NEW CEO sees restoring that innovation culture as his number one priority.

Our managers do love their metrics, our mantra has long been "make the numbers," and Six Sigma seems to fit nicely into that mindset. I wonder what the Six Sigma version of "channel stuffing" might be?

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21. srp on August 4, 2007 7:02 PM writes...

I don't think it was the MBAs who blew billions on combinatorial chemistry gear, or oversold genomics, etc. And although I'd guess that a top management team with research experience would do a better job of managing the R&D part of pharma, I'm not aware of any systematic evidence to support that proposition.

Since I'd also guess that a top management team with R&D experience but little marketing or finance knowhow would tend to screw up those other areas, the ranting about management on these threads seems a bit childish. Obviously some sort of balanced portfolio of individual knowledge profiles is called for, along with effective processes for sharing all that specialized expertise across disciplinary boundaries. Not an easy management task.

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22. bootsy on August 5, 2007 11:36 AM writes...

A bit late to the party, but since no one else had posted it yet.

While it is easy to blame "management", however one defines it, for almost any problem, I think there are some major issues with CEOs of pharma companies who have little to no scientific or research background. The product lifecycle is different, the time to market is orders of magnitude different, and the inherent unknowns and risks are pretty wild when compared to something like say, Boston Market.

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23. clazy on August 10, 2007 11:22 AM writes...

Call me cynical, but I can't help but wonder if this article exists solely to excite know-nothing shareholders. (Like, sadly, me.) Is there any evidence presented in the piece that such a policy has been implemented? Who are the author's sources? The anthropologist? Pfizer marketing/PR?

It also sounds suspiciously like the anthropologist may not have understood what she was hearing: the objective shouldn't be simply to kill projects just because there are problems, but to identify projects with *fatal* problems earlier than has been heretofore possible, and that's something everyone is already trying to do.

In this scenario, she compounds the error by giving herself credit for bringing the scientists to a "new" understanding that is in fact her misunderstanding, whereas nothing has actually changed.

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