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November 19, 2008
Novartis and Reality
I know that it’s not necessarily fair to drag out old press releases, but let’s do it anyway. Many readers will remember a few years back when Novartis was making its big research move into Cambridge, renovating the old Necco candy building and hiring like mad. (We’ll pause for a bit of somber nostalgia at the memory of a large drug company actually hiring hordes of scientists).
While that was going on, there was a lot of talk about the way their research site was going to be run. Under its new research head, Mark Fishman, Novartis would "reinvent the way drugs are discovered" (I quote from an August 2003 article from the Boston Globe, behind their subscriber wall now, which irritated me quite a bit at the time). There was a lot of talk about Gleevec, and how this was going to be some sort of model for the future of drug discovery in the organization. (I could never quite follow that one, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt). The whole thing would be a "research operation vastly different from traditional pharmaceutical research", to quote another old Globe article (May 2002).
Well, some years on now, the obvious question is: did any of this happen? Novartis as a company is doing fairly well, particularly in comparison to some of its peers. And they haven’t had any massive layoffs, to my knowledge, which puts them ahead of the game these days. So overall, the company has been successful: but is the Cambridge site the sort of place it was supposed to be, according to the original PR?
My impression is that it isn’t, at least not to the extent that we were all hearing about back then. I know a number of people who work there, and from the outside, at least, it seems to be pretty much like any other large drug research operation, albeit with less elbow room than usual in some of the labs and offices (a deliberate decision, apparently). I hear the usual talk and the usual complaints. Nothing that goes on over there strikes me as very different from other outfits of that size.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. This isn't a slap at Novartis, at Mark Fishman, or at anyone over there - it's a very good research organization. But I do wonder where all that transformational talk went. Is it still a work in progress (which seems to be the official viewpoint)? Did the organization try to change things, and fail? Was there even a clear idea of what this change was to consist of? Was there a decision made at some point that since things seemed to be going reasonably well, that the company should just leave the site to develop as it was? Or was all that talk at the beginning nothing more than, well, talk? I wondered about this at the time, and I suppose I'm still wondering now. . .
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