There are some interesting statements from GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty here at Reuters. He admits that morale was completely in the scupper around the place a few months ago, which certainly seems to be true, but says that they're turning things around. To that point, remember all that stuff a few years ago about how GSK's research structure exemplified pretty much everything that a drug company needed to have? Well. . .
"We've really thrown into reverse much of the trend of research organisation that had developed over the last 15 years," Witty said.
Over that time, the drugs industry was a big commercial success but it took a "wrong turn" by deciding that drug discovery was an industrial process based on large-scale application of technologies like genomics, proteomics and combinatorial chemistry.
"These were all supposed to transform productivity yet none of them did. It turns out, in my view, that research is much more of an art than a science," Witty said.
Several thoughts come to mind. First off, I take the point about art versus science, but it's hard to do art on an industrial scale. That, to my mind, has been one of the major problems in all of drug R&D. He's right that the industry keeps seizing on things that promise to take some of the craziness out of the process - but it's not like the temptation isn't still around. We just haven't seen the latest brainwave yet.
But still, over time, some of the random element has decreased. We actually do understand a lot of things better than we used to. We know to look for hERG, to pick one example, and there are others. But these things don't (yet) add to enough of a transformation. Adding more and more knowledge to the pile has to help - I'm certainly not enough of a nihilist to deny that - but it's fair to say that it hasn't helped as quickly and as thoroughly as we might have hoped.
You can find opinions all up and down that spectrum: at one end are the nihilists themselves, who hold that the problems we're trying to solve are (at present) too hard, and what's more, they're likely to remain too hard for the foreseeable future, so you'd better get lucky - and design your research structure to improve your chances of doing that. Moving up from there, you have a lot of people in the middle who see incremental progress, but (with Goethe) worry that "Where there is much light, there is much darkness". Every new advance untangles a few things, but also ends up illustrating how much more we need to know. Opinions in this crowd vary, from pessimists who come close to the first nihilist group, all the way up to optimists who hold out hope that things will start making more sense soon. And past them, you come to the super-optimists, the Kurzweilians who are waiting for the Singularity.
But finally, reading the Witty article, I can't help but imagine an interview in around 2020, with whoever's in charge then talking about how they had to get rid of all that musty old research structure that the previous management team had put in. . .