Here’s something that goes on inside almost every biopharma research organization, but always happens behind the scenes if you’re not right there at the meetings: resource allocation for projects. That “almost” is in there because the smallest companies don’t have this problem in the same way, since they tend to have one project that has to succeed. Arguing goes on (most certainly!) about how to make that happen, but it’s only when you have several projects or therapeutic areas going at the same time that you get a multi-front battle.
Simply put, money, people, equipment, and time are all limited. I’m not a fan of always seeing things as zero-sum games, but inside a given organization, the struggle for these resources is pretty much just that. It’s easier when a project ends, because the people involved are presumably free to be reassigned, but projects (for the most part) don’t end without going through a winding-down period, so it’s not like there’s a huge bolus of resources that are suddenly open for use. Month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter, though (depends on the company), the wrangling goes on among projects that are all still in progress.
“Number of chemists” is always a prized variable. The need for med-chem support varies over a project’s lifespan, but there are long stretches where it’s crucial. You see all sorts of behaviors, productive and otherwise, when it comes to allocating people. There are project (and project leaders) that jealously guard their head counts, because they know that people who are allowed to leave are hard to get back. So even if the peak staffing isn’t needed any more, they come up with rationales for why no one should leave at this key point – we’ve got that backup series going, we need to shore up the patents, we need to make intermediates for the tox scale-up, etc. There are also projects that are (if you listen to their leaders) seemingly always starved for hands to work on them. I well recall a therapeutic area head at a former company who, at every single allocation meeting, made the case that the projects in his area were absolutely crippled by the inability of everyone else to realize that every single chemist in the department needed to be working on them all the time. The first time I heard that speech, I was impressed by the boldness of the approach, but as time went on I realized (one) that it was pretty much the same pitch every time (“You’re killing us over here!”), and (two) that it was not having the desired “Cartago delenda est” effect.
Some organizations have a general perception that a project just isn’t “real” unless it has medicinal chemists assigned to it. As a chemist, I certainly wouldn’t want to minimize this respectful attitude, but at the same time, it’s true that if you’re still in the assay development stage that you might not need any just yet. And it’s also true that some projects are just intrinsically going to need more hands on deck than others. If the project settles down on a synthetically difficult lead series, for example, it’s going to be a resource hog, and you’re just going to have to live with it. I was on one that had deceptively tricky chemical matter, a small ring whose various steric hindrances and tendencies toward side reactions made it a constant annoyance, and the project team was constantly having to defend both its head count and its apparently low production of new analogs – which is not a good situation to be in, because no one wants to hear you moan about how hard the chemistry is, even when it’s the truth.
Other resources that can be in short supply and worth fighting for, besides chemists, can be high-thoughput screening slots, cell culture, protein purification (often the sequel to cell culture), cloning, and the attention of assay-development specialists. Those are often early-stage issues, while later on in a project the fights are over scale-up chemistry, toxicology screening slots, the attention and time of formulations specialists, and so on. Never once have I ever worked in an organization where these things were thought to all be in sufficient supply. And I don’t think that’s even possible, because if you always had enough to handle whatever project needs might arise, you’d be guaranteed to have a good number of people who were more or less idle another part of the year.
So the key is to find a way to allocate these things without bitterness or deception, and different organizations have had varying levels of success with that. My own take is that it comes down to personalities, for better or worse. If people have good working relationships, and feel as if they can trust each other, then there’s going to be less grandstanding and dog-and-pony-ing. If you’re working in a company where these issues are constantly a source of friction and bitterness, though, you’re probably seeing just part of the dysfunction that runs through the whole research organization – unfortunately.