I didn’t have time yesterday to go into any detailed thoughts on the news from Novartis, so I thought I’d put up a few today. Overall, you have to say that Novartis research over the last ten years or so has been pretty productive, and the company has also managed to avoid both Big Job-Slashing Upheavals (well, for the most part) and Whopping Mega-Mergers during that time. It’s not that Novartis hasn’t gotten rid of people – they most certainly have – but overall, there doesn’t seem to be quite as much chop-n-burn compared to other companies their size (see GSK, Merck, AstraZeneca, and a depressingly long list more for examples). And at the same time, they’ve hired people, too. I have no idea of what their R&D head count is compared to ten years ago – doubtless smaller, because does any big drug company have more R&D staff now than they did in 2005? But I’d be willing to be that it’s a less dramatic difference than most (maybe all) of their peers.
Now to the science. As commenters to yesterday’s post pointed out, Mark Fishman came into the company under a banner of transformative science. He wasn’t alone, and still isn’t – a lot of R&D heads have that song playing when they first enter the building, and many of them even mean it. But I’m pretty sure that if you time-traveled back to 2004 and showed Fishman (and his then-boss, Daniel Vasella) a picture of how research would be done at Novartis in the distant days of 2015, they might be a bit disappointed that things didn’t change more than they did. I’m not assigning blame. von Moltke (the elder one) originated the line about how no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy – his didn’t, although a lot of other people had gotten their hands on it by then. And so it goes with big plans to reorganize drug research. The enemy, in our case, is the same as ever: biochemical reality, dang it, full of exceptions, complications, snags, and delays.
So we’ll see what’s on Jay Bradner’s flag as he takes over. That will depend, at least partly, on what the higher-ups at Novartis would like to see on it, because they’re not going to hire someone who will deviate too far from what they think is sound policy, naturally. There are several possibilities. When the grand research pooh-bah departs suddenly, you can expect the replacement to come in with a broom on one shoulder. That’s why they were hired, to shake things up and sweep out the dust. That happens often enough that every big managerial change sends waves of trepidation through an organization, because, to a first approximation, that’s one of the things that big managerial changes are for.
So that’s one possible path. If that’s going to be the way it goes, then look for the traditional months-long process of “Just What Exactly Is Going On Around Here, Anyway?” to start up shortly. Something like it might start up regardless, though, on a smaller and less strenuous scale, just to give Bradner himself a tour of the research organization as it stands, so people shouldn’t necessarily panic. After all, he’s coming in as Fishman takes a (pretty much expected) retirement – this isn’t one of those executive defenestrations where the old boss lands halfway to the parking lot in a shower of PowerPoint printouts, and is chased from the premises, pelted with chunky clear plastic award dinguses bearing instructive legends such as “Power Team Leadership” and “Innovative Organizational Focus”.
That means that another path is possible: Stay the Course. This is less common, but then again, Novartis has more reason to stay the course than most companies. (Believe me, a lot of them are frantically grabbing the wheel, trying to do anything else but stay the damned course, only to find that the company steers like a trainload of iron ore). In this case, Bradner will have been brought in because the company likes his worldview and thinks he can keep things rolling along. I tend to think that this is what’s actually going on, but we’ll see.
Running a research organization the size of Novartis will be a challenge, although Bradner has been dealing with some pretty hefty bureaucracies himself over the years, experience that will come in handy. It’ll still be an adjustment. He’ll have some constituencies that no one in academia ever really has, and the whole focus of an industrial research operation is, in the end, just different from that of an academic institution. (That’s as it should be; they have different purposes). There will be suspicions, no doubt, that the new guy just doesn’t get it, but since the very same doubts hovered around Fishman himself when he came on, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem at Novartis as it would be in some other organizations.
The road ahead may look wide, but it can be surprisingly narrow, and there are deep ditches on both sides of it. These represent (for example) letting projects go on too long, and the opposite error as well of expecting them to deliver too soon. And they can be letting things get stagnant, as opposed to the other ditch you run into by shaking things up constantly. Or one ditch can be spreading your R&D too thinly, where nothing has the critical mass to every really get done, while the ditch on the other side of the road is putting all your money down on that one big project that’s just sure to work, because everyone involved is so smart and works so hard. Oh yeah, there are all kinds of ways for this stuff not to work. But in the end, if Jay Bradner’s research organization can deliver drugs that are useful enough that people will actually be willing to pay money for them, then he’ll be just fine. Best wishes to him.