A couple of articles have come together and gotten me to thinking. Back during the summer, long-time medicinal chemist Mark Murcko published a short editorial in Drug Discovery Today comemmerating the Apollo 11 moon landing's 40th anniversary:
"People like me, who are old enough to actually remember the events of July 1969, are instantly assailed with powerful and reflexive emotions when we think back to the effect Apollo had on us: the excitement, awe and wonder. My family, like so many others, was obsessed with space exploration. The walls of our den were covered with NASA photos, diagrams and technical bulletins – anything we could get them to send us. Models of rockets hung from the ceiling by fishing line. . .We soaked it all in, and the events of that day remain a seminal memory of my childhood. It was glorious; nothing could possibly be more exhilarating.
And yet...there are some interesting parallels to what all of us, engaged in the roiling tumult of biomedical research, do here and now. Our mission – to invent new therapies that transform human health and alleviate suffering – captures the imagination as profoundly as did Apollo. Our efforts once were regarded with the same admiration as the NASA breakthroughs (and while public perceptions may be different today, our mission has not wavered). We are attempting, one could argue, even more complex technical achievements. . . ."
And just the other day I came across this piece in The New Atlantis entitled "The Lost Prestige of Nuclear Physics". (Via Arts and Letters Daily). Its thesis, which I think is accurate:
"The story of nuclear physics is one of the most remarkable marketing disasters in intellectual history. In the space of a few decades, the public perception of the atom’s promise to serve humanity, and the international admiration that surrounded the many brilliant people who unraveled the mysteries of matter, had collapsed. So pronounced was the erosion of attitudes toward nuclear physics that, by the late 1990s, several European physicists felt it necessary to establish an organization called Public Awareness of Nuclear Science for the explicit purpose of improving the public image of their discipline."
Of course, in that case, there was that little matter of the atomic bomb and the subsequent arms race) to contrast against the excitement of the scientific discoveries and their peaceful uses. One might argue that for the general public, it was all very admirable to be able to figure out the forces that kept atoms together, but when these forces turned out to have such alarming and immediate real-world consequences, the backlash was profound. And while I sympathize with the nuclear physicists, I have to only wish them luck in their attempts to regain a good public image. That's because those consequences are still very much with us, as a glance at the news will show.
But the fall from grace of drug research has been almost as profound, and we've never developed an equivalent of nuclear weapons, have we? In our case, I think the problem has been that we're a business. We bill people for our discoveries when they work. And as I've argued here, people will always have a much more emotional response to any issue that affects their physical health, and can quickly come to resent anyone that charges them money to maintain it. (Doctors, though, benefit from the one-on-one patient relationship. People hate hospitals, hate health insurance companies, and hate drug companies, but still respect their own physicians). This, as manifested by complaints about drug prices, uneasiness about hard-sell advertising, and suspicion about our motivations and our methods, seems to be what's sent public opinion of us into the dumper.
But in the end, Murcko has a point. We really are doing something good for humanity by working on understanding diseases and trying to find treatments for them. Not everything about the process is optimal, for sure, but can anyone argue that the broad effort of pharmaceutical research has been a bad thing? The problem is, it's easy to look around, and slide from there into self-pity. But moaning about how no one appreciates us is a waste of time. The best cure is, as far as I can see, to give people reasons to realize what we're worth.
People who've been pulled back from the brink of death from infectious disease or cancer already have those reasons. But there are so many terrible unmet medical needs still out there, which means that there's plenty of room for us both to do good and to show that we can do good. Yes, it will cost a lot of money to do that, which means that what cures will come will also cost money. But with the partial exception of air to breath, most of the necessities of life tend to involve money changing hands. That's not a disqualification.
So to the readers out there in the industry - go do some good work today. Don't spend too much time in your more useless meetings. Stand up in front of your fume hood or sit down in front of your keyboard and do something worthwhile. It's a worthwhile job, even if some people don't realize that yet.