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April 29, 2013
Just Work on the Winners
That Lamar Smith proposal I wrote about earlier this morning can be summarized as "Why don't you people just work on the good stuff?" And I thought it might be a good time to link back to a personal experience I had with just that worldview. As you'll see from that story, all they wanted was for us to meet the goals that we put down on our research goals forms. I was told, face to face, that the idea was that this would make us put our efforts into the projects that were most likely to succeed. Who could object to that? Right?
But since we here in the drug industry are so focused on making money, y'know, you'd think that we would have even more incentives to make sure that we're only working on the things that are likely to pay off. And we can't do it. Committees vet proposals, managers look over progress reports, presentations are reviewed and data are sifted, all to that end, because picking the wrong project can sink you good and proper, while picking the right one can keep you going for years to come. But we fail all the time. A good 90% of the projects that make it into the clinic never make it out the other end, and the attrition even before getting into man is fierce indeed. We back the wrong horses for the best reasons available, and sometimes we back the right ones for reasons that end up evaporating along the way. This is the best we can do, the state of the art, and it's not very good at all.
And that's in applied research, with definite targets and endpoints in mind the whole way through. Now picture what it's like in the basic research end of things, which is where a lot of NSF and NIH money is (and should be) going. It is simply not possible to say where a lot of these things are going, and which ones will bear fruit. If you require everyone to sign forms saying that Yes, This Project Has Immediate Economic and National Security Impact, then the best you can hope for is to make everyone lie to you.
Update: a terrific point from the comments section: "(This) argument was often made when firms were reducing costs by shutting down particular pieces of R&D. The general idea was that the firm would stop doing the things that were unlikely to work, and focus more on the things that would work, and hence improve financial returns on R&D. This argument is implausible because successful R&D is wildly profitable. Financial returns are only dragged down by the things that don't work. Therefore, any company that could REALLY distinguish with any precision between winners and losers on a prospective basis should double or triple its R&D investment, and not cut it."
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