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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

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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November 16, 2011

Ray Firestone's Take On Pharma's Plight

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Posted by Derek

And while I'm linking out to other opinion pieces, Ray Firestone has a cri du couer in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, looking back over his decades in the business. Regular readers of this blog (or of Ray Firestone!) will recognize all the factors he talks about, for sure. He talks about creativity (and its reception at some large companies), the size of an organization and its relation to productivity, and what's been driving a lot of decisions over the last ten or twenty years. To give you a sample:

if size is detrimental to an innovative research culture, mergers between large companies should make things worse — and they do. They have a strong negative personal impact on researchers and, consequently, the innovative research environment. For example, the merger of Bristol-Myers with Squibb in 1989, which I witnessed, was a scene of power grabs and disintegrating morale. Researchers who could get a good offer left the company, and the positions of those who remained were often decided by favouritism rather than talent. Productivity fell so low that an outside firm was hired to find out why. Of course, everyone knew what was wrong but few — if any — had the nerve to say it.

Comments (26) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Business and Markets | Drug Industry History | Who Discovers and Why


1. Bryan on November 16, 2011 12:58 PM writes...

I also quote as follows:

"Finally, another negative management trend
has been to hire ‘academic geniuses’ into high
positions to make ‘quantum leaps’ in R&D
productivity. In my experience this has always
been disastrous. They promised great things,
spent recklessly, wrecked morale by belittling
the regular staff and left with no significant

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2. XPharma on November 16, 2011 1:11 PM writes...

I can say that your experience with the BMS merger has been repeated with the Merck-SP merger with exactly the same results, except perhaps that they haven't yet hired the consultants to tell them what they already know...

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3. newnickname on November 16, 2011 1:44 PM writes...

@1, I was going to cut and paste the exact same quote. I also have a bias against outside academic consultants. While useful for providing highly qualified outsider input and an occasional alternative (useful) insight, in-house talent is often as or more knowledgeable of the problems at hand and full of their own creative, innovative ideas. I mean, isn't that why they were hired in the first place??? I kind of resented some already secure, tenured consultant getting paid 4x (on an hourly basis) what I was being paid just to approve in-house generated ideas and ALSO get the credit for being such a genius, or genie-ass, as the case may be. And to hear Management's oblivious praise of Prof So-and-so for having (generating) such good ideas was further irritating. (Historical example: Woodward is often credited with coming up with the beta-lactam structure of penicillin. He didn't. Chemists at Merck, Oxford and Shell proposed the beta-lactam, presented their evidence and RBW agreed with them over Robinson's oxazolone.)

"We hired you because you're the best and the brightest. We just aren't going to treat you that way."

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4. Triflate on November 16, 2011 2:05 PM writes...

Hey Derek, great blog - not to nitpick but my internal french dictionary is gasping - it's actually "cri de coeur"

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5. Nick K on November 16, 2011 2:53 PM writes...

#4: Sorry to be ultra-pedantic, but it should be cri de cœur, with a diphthong.

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6. pete on November 16, 2011 3:08 PM writes...

- and if all of Pharma is going to the dogs, then it's a "cri du cur".

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7. John Wayne on November 16, 2011 3:21 PM writes...

Wow. This article is a summary of every thought I have ever had while working in big pharma. Ray Firestone and others have called out every senior manager to make a change for the better. Please listen; I would like my dream job back.

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8. NoDrugsNoJobs on November 16, 2011 3:58 PM writes...

damn it, this guy stole and published what I have been thinking for some time -

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9. johnnyboy on November 16, 2011 4:52 PM writes...

wasn't gonna say anything, but i can't pass up an opportunity to out-pedant the pedants: the actual expression is cri du cœur, although the 'du' seems to transmogrify into 'de' when used by anglo speakers.
Hey, anything to not talk about the too depressing topic at hand.

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10. Anonymous on November 16, 2011 5:17 PM writes...

"For example, the merger of Bristol-Myers with Squibb in 1989, which I witnessed, was a scene of power grabs and disintegrating morale. Researchers who could get a good offer left the company, and the positions of those who remained were often decided by favouritism rather than talent. Productivity fell so low that an outside firm was hired to find out why. Of course, everyone knew what was wrong but few — if any — had the nerve to say it".

This situation is not unique to BMS...this is (at least in my opinion)the underlying problem with big pharma, especially when they decide to downsize. Ray is spot on there!! The favoritism bias is at the heart of many layoffs. Anyone who challenged the inept manager's ways is GONE....even if they have multiple compounds in the clinic or even a drug on the market. You see, they are a threat to the narcissistic personality of the manager and become targeted. Generally, those who tend to survive the layoffs are sycophants, the risk averse and politicians who have honed their craft over the years.

BMS is not the only one...just look at Roche. What a complete disaster!!

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11. DrSnowboard on November 16, 2011 5:24 PM writes...

Shame DDT want to charge me $18 for this, yet I can get Leeson's oeuvre for free, generally.... Perhaps a value judgment?

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12. Anonymous on November 16, 2011 5:48 PM writes...


"Generally, those who tend to survive the layoffs are sycophants, the risk averse and politicians who have honed their craft over the years"

=>> You forgot to mention the newbies (greenies) with Beware'd better get your game maybe in the next round..or the next, or next. You have no one to teach you, they are long're on your own. Welcome to big pharma...

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13. Ricardo Rodriges on November 16, 2011 6:09 PM writes...

Pfizer pharmacia and Wyeth ... that was painful to watch ... how many tens of thousands of redundancies? And for what?

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14. Susurrus on November 16, 2011 8:14 PM writes...

This is not meant to be a rhetorical question, but why do any of us continue in this profession?

The job is like:

a) balancing a lobsided starfish on the head of a pin.

b) while people who have obviously lost their minds are yelling at you.

c) and there is a time limit

d) by the way, do you mind explaining it to the 22 year old technician how you made your scientiific decisions? Because they'll be doing your job in the future. Bottom line and all. Hope you understand.

Middle digit salute! You're Number One!

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15. cliffintokyo on November 16, 2011 9:13 PM writes...

@3 RE: Consultants

My experience was that semi-academic discussions with uni profs can be a refreshing break from the daily grind. Many offer useful insights and tips about practical chemistry.
If your dept dir brings in a big starstruck politico-prof who thinks he 'knows' med chem, let your dir know discreetly that the discussions were not productive. If the dir is a good chemist, he will get the message.

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16. Anonymous on November 16, 2011 9:17 PM writes...

Add SP - the answer for what is to get Wall Street to back the megalomaniac's excessive retirement (walk-away) fund, paid for by those who are regarded as redundant. After all, isn't it justifiable, given all the great synergies and products that have come from these mergers...? No? Well the execs who got their golden parachutes think so. And Wall Street - well, they have been proven short-sighted dupes over and over again. Shareholders ALWAYS approve mergers.

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17. Anonymous on November 17, 2011 6:24 AM writes...

How do laid off chemists now with limited disposable income get access to the posted article?

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18. newnickname on November 17, 2011 6:36 AM writes...

@15 More on Consultants

I admit that some are more helpful (useful) than others. Some reveal astonishing ignorance poorly masked by egomaniacal certainty. In biotech, MBAs with no prior experience in science are enamored by the opportunity of getting to meet, wine and dine with Big Famous Guys and being able to (try to) impress investors with name dropping the long list of highly paid expert consultants as if they were best buddies.

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19. Anonymous on November 17, 2011 6:56 AM writes...

Also interested in accessing the article!

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20. Innovorich on November 17, 2011 7:26 AM writes...

I find it rather strange that in the discussion on factors attributing to the above inflation rise in R&D costs, no where does he acknowledge that when there are 1200 drugs on the market, it is going to be harder to find new drugs than it was in 1950 when there were no drugs; i.e. the methods needed to figure that out are going to be more complex and expensive than in 1950 when, to borrow from the analogy above, the lobsided starfish pretty much just needed to land on a flat table!

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21. Nick K on November 17, 2011 6:05 PM writes...

#20 Innovorich: Exactly. Perhaps this is the law of diminishing returns in action. If so, there isn't much we can do about it, and Pharma's continues decline will continue.

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22. Nick K on November 17, 2011 6:08 PM writes...

Apologies for the last, mangled post. Omit the word "continues".

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23. Student on November 18, 2011 1:35 AM writes...

Based on what I've read it seems like companies do worse as the scientists are removed from the top of the company. Whether that is because the MBAs are making bad decisions or because the scientists aren't there to make good ones, I'd never know [as I'm on the sidelines...or the bleachers I suppose].

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24. Anonymous on November 20, 2011 7:34 PM writes...


Actually, in many cases talent doesn't come into play in layoffs. You see, HR doesn't know the scientists or their ability. When it comes to layoffs, the HR rely on management to make the call on "who stays and who goes"

That's where the bias, favoritism and cronyism comes into play. It goes unchecked by HR. The management has full reign and control.

In the end, the narcissists win and the talent (a challenge to narcissistic management, their ways, means and policies) generally loses. The end result is layoff of talent and retention of narcissistic supply, non-sense and weakness.

As a student, you need to be aware of this if considering a future in pharma especially med. chem. Seek out the down to earth leaders that have a strong knowledge. Stay away from the boisterous, arrogant who can't listen....

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25. paywall on November 20, 2011 8:27 PM writes...

I've always wondered why Nature (the umbrella and all) don't free up articles that are >1 year old like many other journals do?

AAAS I think has this policy, and I have high praise for them.

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26. Sam on November 21, 2011 3:11 PM writes...

"AAAS I think has this policy, and I have high praise for them."

The journal Science from AAAS is a schlock journal.
That's why its free. Science is joke, the editors selecting provocative but light on details articles from their favorite sycophants. It's censored science. Tune in any week to hear how great a career in science is.

It's why American science is on the ropes.

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