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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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January 31, 2014

Beelzebub Pharma, Inc.

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to note my latest column for the RSC's Chemistry World, because I thought many readers here would be able to relate to it. I have a series of proposals for running the worst drug discovery organization I can think of - a set of simple rules that I think would bring things to a frantic, juddering halt while seeming to aim at enhancing everyone's productivity. A sample:

Appearances matter. And if it comes to a contest between surface and substance, then the glossiest surface wins. Woe to anyone whose presentations are not smooth and slick, with as many colorful charts as possible. Woe, similarly, to those who fail to tell anyone who asks (and many who don’t) how cleanly and tightly their current project is running. The first step to making problems disappear is to get them out of everyone’s sight. Right?

There will be many, many meetings to show off those beautiful slides. Multiple overlapping layers of meetings: it’s the only way to keep things running smoothly. Your worth as a manager, and as a human being, is tied to how many people you can cause to assemble in a room on a regular basis and how frequently you can get them to stand up in front of you.

I'm coming up (this fall) on twenty-five years of industrial research, and I found this column alarmingly easy to write. I was reminded of C. S. Lewis' experience in composing The Screwtape Letters, and his reluctance to write any more in that style. It really does just come out like opening up a water line once you get started, which says something about human nature.

Comments (43) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs | The Dark Side


1. Nick K on January 31, 2014 9:41 AM writes...

Tragically, this is a sober, factual account of Big Pharma culture, not satire.

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2. FormerGSK on January 31, 2014 9:51 AM writes...

All depressingly true. My only addition would be a "kiss-and-kick" culture, that works synergistically with everything else that you listed.

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3. The Iron Chemist on January 31, 2014 9:59 AM writes...

Are you sure you're not talking about academics?

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4. CMCguy on January 31, 2014 10:03 AM writes...

Good article Derek which like the Dilbert Comics often reflects real world we live in some times. Not that scientists are immune from such tendencies but if are putting MBA, Marketing and Lawyers in charge not sure would generally expect more than style over substance culture.

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5. John Wayne on January 31, 2014 10:04 AM writes...

Yeah ... it's not just Pharma.

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6. simpl, 2nd try on January 31, 2014 10:09 AM writes...

"10,000m race if you ran it as a series of 100m sprints"
I was a guinea-pig for one of these at a school sports day - round a track, teams of indefinite size, each could run multiple times - I've never seen so many healthy young people vomiting at one event.

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7. blueman on January 31, 2014 10:17 AM writes...

Ensure [HR] >> [Scientists]
Ensure your pet projects get resourced regardless of any annoyingly negative data
Move to anywhere called Cambridge because location is far more important than people

You are so right Derek - its too easy to write this. Anyone know of a well performing R&D site looking for a new head ?

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8. Anonymous on January 31, 2014 10:20 AM writes...

I'm imagining in my mind that this all takes place in an open office/lab setting.

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9. bhip on January 31, 2014 10:45 AM writes...

"We have had 40 chemists on this for three years!! I don't care if the monkeys vomit/speak in tongues/catch fire/attempt suicide, just keep to the time lines & shut up!! We need a fifth/tenth/fifteenth Recommendation for Clinical Development or the VP won’t meet her goals”…….

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10. FormerGSK on January 31, 2014 11:00 AM writes...

Excellent piece in a similar vein from Sean Ekins on why he left the Pistoia Alliance:

The sad reality is that gasbags are killing the industry!

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11. Vader on January 31, 2014 11:01 AM writes...

An apparatchik may be defined as a person who doesn’t mind how long a meeting goes on unless he has another meeting to attend.

–Ted Dalrymple

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12. opsomath on January 31, 2014 11:30 AM writes...

Site is DDOS'ed. I guess RSC isn't used to people actually viewing their site :)

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13. DannoH on January 31, 2014 11:35 AM writes...

"Lean and 6S are core tenets upon which our successful business will be built. Leader Standard Work is the key to effeciency in daily operations, and must be carried on your person and updated frequently, subject to surprise inspections."

I wish I could say I was making that up; nearly verbatim from one of our "Corporate Policies" that was rammed down our throat at a production facility. It was discovered soon that Lean and Government Regulations tend to be mutually exclusive.

My favorite moment occurred during a "your papers please" session: I informed them that my standard work was stored in biochemical format, pointed to my head, and said that unfortunately they did not have the software to read that particular format.

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14. 10 fingers on January 31, 2014 11:41 AM writes...

Another toxic category/phenotype: set hyper-aggressive goals with timelines requiring staggering assumption of risk (and cost), while making it clear that the personal consequences of dissent and failure are career lethal.

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15. BigSky on January 31, 2014 12:24 PM writes...

I was, by turns, laughing> crying> laughing> weeping in abject despair. Ambrose Bierce did the same.

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16. Legion on January 31, 2014 1:00 PM writes...

@14: Excuse me, may I leave the team meeting? I have to go hurt myself now.

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17. Bob Sacamano on January 31, 2014 1:19 PM writes...

Academics just skip the meetings. Probably because: Campus initiatives follow a reinvention cycle that maps onto maximum collective institutional memory (5 yr). Faculty handbooks and other documents are regularly and painfully revised or drawn up with a group editing process. There's always one in the crowd who stands up and bloviates for 5 min and doesn't notice half the room bailing out.

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18. Lab Rat on January 31, 2014 1:19 PM writes...

"Merge or reorganize every 18-24 months, so productive working relationships never have time to develop."

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19. Electrochemist on January 31, 2014 1:25 PM writes...

"The first step to making problems disappear is to get them out of everyone’s sight."

Yes; but only on your project. It is also important to selectively report information on someone else's project, exaggerate the problems, and "solve" their problem for them.

People don't get promoted for smoothly running projects, you know!

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20. Anonymous on January 31, 2014 1:37 PM writes...

This sounds like MBA heaven.

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21. MoMo on January 31, 2014 2:03 PM writes...

A sad statement on the industry we call Pharma.

Let the Big Clean Out continue!

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22. Graphite on January 31, 2014 2:24 PM writes...

I'm fond of the "let's have several stakeholder management meetings before the big presentation" because a) nobody from senior management can be bothered to read the pre-info and they get confused/twitchy seeing things cold and b) that way the presentation will go through unchallenged and the team gets to fight another day. Multiple meetings to make people feel important and fill up the senior management calendars - how else will they justify their existence?

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23. Anonymous on January 31, 2014 2:56 PM writes...

From the Lewis quote: "The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp"

Anyone know a good stretching exercise for that, I seem to have gotten one just from reading this. Too close to home.

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24. DrSnowboard on January 31, 2014 3:14 PM writes...

Yup, so close to reality it hurts. If anyone needs to see a reason why AZ have no pipeline and almost no scientific workforce now, these are the guiding principles they ran with for the last 10 years. I'm reminded of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the spaceship with the telephone sanitation engineers (ie 6 sigma acolytes) is the one that sadly survives

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25. daveh on January 31, 2014 4:20 PM writes...

Curse you start-up employer 'o mine. I missed out on this "Leader Standard Work" thingy.

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26. Dr Faustus on January 31, 2014 5:18 PM writes...

Take it from me, any careerist who turns away from the trials and tribulations of frontline science becomes an ex-scientist who has signed a pact with The Devil. Come hither my friends, my furnace has an insatiable demand for powerpoint. Burn baby, burn...

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27. anon on January 31, 2014 7:46 PM writes...

Sorry, but you got scooped.
It was called Wyeth.

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28. Anonymous on January 31, 2014 9:30 PM writes...

I had to google Leader Standard Work. Hooboy.

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29. Lunar landing on January 31, 2014 11:01 PM writes...

May be human nature. Axiomatic in most industrial and academic settings. Advancement and promotion are based on a very basic law of Nature.....

Hot air rises!

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30. London Chemist on February 1, 2014 4:09 AM writes...

I am sure I cannot be alone in saying that this sounds very like an organisation I used to work for (in my case, large US Pharma with lab near the coast in south east England that closed three years ago....)

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31. Nick K on February 1, 2014 5:01 AM writes...

#30: Odd you should say that. I used work there too, and I can confirm that the company culture was exactly as described. The nearby town is one of the Cinque Ports, and has a famous golf course.

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32. Lover of Chemistry on February 1, 2014 8:43 AM writes...

London Chemist #30 and Nick K #31,

Gosh! That all sounds very familiar. It sounds remarkably like a place I used to work in a part of the country not dissimilar to the one you both describe.

Sorry I have to nip off for a meeting...

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33. Johnjohn on February 1, 2014 12:09 PM writes...

Lean- Gemba! Andon! Flux capacitor! Glory!

wow, thanks for broadening my horizons with these ahem, priceless, pearls of wisdom.

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34. Anonymous on February 1, 2014 12:53 PM writes...

@30, 31: ...and rhymes with Shizer, but start with the same letter as foo.

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35. London Chemist on February 1, 2014 5:49 PM writes...

@31, 32, 34

Thanks guys: I came under a lot of pressure/criticism for speaking my mind, both there and afterwards (I left in 2006)-- its nice to know I wasn't alone in thinking things were not right.....

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36. Anonymous on February 2, 2014 12:52 PM writes...

@35: The first and only sign you need to know if a place is terrible for innovation, is when you get shot down for speaking your mind. Innovation absolutely depends on challenging conventional herd thinking. As soon as that happens, move on! And if you're in management/HR, take notice!

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37. London Chemist on February 2, 2014 2:03 PM writes...

I was once told "we've always done it that way and we're still here, so we must be doing it right".
Except, of course, they no longer are....

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38. Ed on February 2, 2014 2:38 PM writes...

#37 I bet the guy that said that is still employed by them. Or now enjoys a "leadership" position somewhere else.

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39. Anonymous BMS Researcher on February 2, 2014 7:10 PM writes...

"The Meeting Reduction Plan Steering Committee will meet every Friday, immediately following the Acronym Development Team Meetings."

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40. Dogbertd on February 3, 2014 11:31 AM writes...

Too true, and too sad. It seems to me that the advent of "Science Managers" has resulted in the weakening of any company they touch. I once worked in a company where the CEO (Bsc, MBA) walked into my office and demanded that I put something into the clinic by next year. When i pointed out that there was nothing worth putting into the clinic in the current portfolio (simply because the chemistry and biology were too immature)I was told that this type of thinking would ruin the company. We need to raise money and to do so, we needed to have something in the clinic. So I did, and it was rubbish as I expected.

I've come to the conclusion that the first lesson in any MBA course is the prefrontal lobotomy, removing the ability to think critically or logically. Sadly the second lesson seems to be: how to talk fabulous bullshit that will mesmerise anyone.

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41. newnickname on February 3, 2014 10:35 PM writes...

@40 Dogbertd "demanded that I put something into the clinic by next year ...". My version of that story is about seeing the MBAs' slick Dog and Pony Show power point presentation saying we'd have an IND by such and such a time. I said that the only way we'd have an IND by that time point would be if we bought one from another company. They were not amused. They were, however, delusional idiots.

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42. Don Key on February 14, 2014 6:17 AM writes...

I have spent many years sitting at my desk making project update slides and then going over and over and over them adding more and more and mroe gloss...until I was choking (literally!) At which time I went home. The next morning, I continued where I left off....

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43. Cyber Chef on February 14, 2014 6:22 AM writes...

To think that the real scientists who are making real contributions to successful drug diescovery, more often than not are NOT capable of presenting as if they were used car sales people...and they people are therefore the ones who receive bad appraisals and are rejected by "talent management"!

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