Skip to main content

Who Discovers and Why


Now that I’ve had a chance to look over the Wall Street Journal’s article on Bristol-Meyers Squibb, it occurs to me that I’ve seen this behavior many times. I don’t mean the financial voodoo (although I’ve seen that at second hand, just like anyone else who pays attention to the markets.) What I mean is the attitude that leads to it.

BMS got into this trouble because they promised 12% sales growth, right into the headwind of patent expirations on things like Glucophage and Taxol. The failure of Vanlev took them by surprise, just like it took everyone else, but it’s not like they didn’t know that those patent expirations were coming. Promising that kind of growth was arrogant and completely unrealistic, and that’s the attitude I’m talking about.

Now, there are plenty of arrogant scientists in this world. But we’re all supposed to look at the data and be willing to listen to what it says, even if we don’t like it. You really can’t make it in science unless you’re willing to do that, and it keeps you from getting as full of yourself as you might otherwise get. Some of your ideas are just not going to work, because the universe isn’t set up to let them work.

But there’s a worldview common to athletic coaches, motivational speakers, and CEOs, and it says that failure is not an option. If you do fail, then you obviously didn’t have the killer instinct, the grit, the tenacity, the fire in the belly. You just didn’t want it enough. Sound familiar? This outlook can work when you’re dealing with things that can be browbeaten (like other people.) It might work on scientists, but a lot of good that’ll do, because it won’t work on their science.

Now, it’s true that your researchers need to be motivated, and need to keep pushing to accomplish things. That’s why, in spite of all its inefficient craziness, I think that having dozens of drug companies fighting it out is a good thing, because it keeps us all on our toes. And you need tenacity to do good research, because most good ideas only get around to working after about the eighteenth try. These things are necessary – my point is that they’re not sufficient.

And that’s where this hard-charging attitude breaks down. It’s all very well to yell at the sales force – it might even stir them up, until they all go find other jobs, since they’re people dealing with other people. But are you really going to do that with the researchers and patent lawyers, with the clinical teams and the bioinformatics people? I’ve sat through meetings where people tried, and if eye-rolling made a noise, you wouldn’t have been able to hear yourself think.

No amount of table-pounding will make a clinical trial turn out the way you want it to. No talk is tough enough to convince a protein assay to tell you that your compounds are active. You can rant at the rats all you want, but they’ll continue to do whatever pleases them, and it’s up to you to figure out what it all means. The physical universe cannot be sweet-talked, conned, or intimidated. It is what it is, and it does what it does.