Not everyone is going to sit still and listen to someone from GlaxoSmithKline talk about how to most effectively deploy chemists (and wonder where more of them might be coming from). If you’re up for it, here’s the article at Drug Discovery Today. It’s not trying to hide the situation, though (links added for the original references in the manuscript):
The number of scientists employed in pharmaceutical R&D has decreased substantially over the past decade as a result of mergers, acquisitions and general economic constraint. In the UK for example, the numbers have fallen 28% from a peak of 32,000 in 2007 to 23,000 in 2013. Furthermore, within our industry there is a growing focus on biological approaches such as monoclonal antibodies or cell and gene therapy to target very specific patient phenotypes, stimulated by our expanded knowledge of the human genome. For example, in 2015, one third of new drugs approved in the US by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were antibodies, peptides or enzymes, compared with about a quarter in 2014 (Ref #3 C&EN). We can therefore reasonably assume that the number of medicinal chemists in the pharmaceutical industry in the UK has decreased by about a third since 2007
At least. The article goes on to talk about GSK’s strategy for chemistry, and this part might be a hard sell in say, North Carolina:
Within GSK R&D a thorough evaluation led us to a core strategy of maximising the cost effectiveness of our chemists by investing heavily and continuously in professional development and providing a framework for them to focus on higher value and innovative activities. Investing in chemistry talent is an important part of our strategy to reduce the high levels of drug discovery attrition which have been so problematical within our industry.
The rest of the piece reads a bit like a presentation from the company’s HR department, to be honest about it, as it goes into detail on how the company identifies and develops chemists. None of it sounds particularly bad on paper, but a person of cynical bent would note that sounding good on paper is a major design feature of all these things. I do, however, give the author credit for this ending:
Ultimately, however, the success of the model will be judged by the destination, which in our industry tends to be some 10 years after the medicinal chemistry costs are spent. Therefore, while an energised and motivated workforce with a great demographic holds much appeal, the ultimate effectiveness will be determined by the number of drug approvals that we achieve over the forthcoming years.
And there’s the problem. Very few Big Strategies at a given company last for ten years, no matter who’s in charge. Very few people are even in charge for that long, for that matter, and the next set of people will have their own ideas about things should be run. So I really have to doubt if anyone has ever seen a consistent large-scale strategy through in this business for ten years under modern conditions. The way to check would be to pick any given year, and then go back ten years and look at the slide decks and management presentations, asking yourself “Do these artifacts bear any resemblance at all to what really happened?” Ten years is a good estimate for the amount of time you have to wait to see effects downstream in the clinic and in approvals, but that’s an awfully long time for a PowerPoint slide deck to remain relevant.
Personally, I’ve lost count since I started work in 1989 of the various revamps, overhauls, re-orgs, re-alignments, and Big Total Changes I’ve seen. One that I remember fondly featured the slogan “No More Business As Usual”, and after a couple of months, people starting putting a comma after the “No”. When I got to the Wonder Drug Factory in 1997, all the ID cards carried the logo “Vision 2010!”, which was the company’s Seldon Plan for becoming a mighty force by that distant year. The world had other ideas, at least for us. By 2010, those of us who were fortunate enough to be working all were scattered to different companies entirely, and the buildings we we’d been working in didn’t even belong to the company any more.
Alas, all planning! Or at least all big, overarching, multiyear planning. Back in the late 80s, you used to hear about companies in Japan that had business plans for the next fifty or hundred years. I have to think that these were apocryphal tales spread by consultants, who wanted to spread fear and doubt in order to be hired for their own fearsome planning abilities. I mean, how idiotic would you have to be to seriously attempt any useful strategy over that time span? Remember, this was in the era of Japan Is Coming to Rule the World, itself an interesting artifact of long-range thinking: if you’d asked a bunch of consultants back then to predict Japan’s economy over the next 25 years, I’m pretty sure that what really happened (flatter than a sushi mat) would never have made the list, not even in the backup slides.
So while I may grit my teeth a bit at hearing GlaxoSmithKline’s strategic chemistry thoughts, that last paragraph is the one that turns around, like Prospero in The Tempest, and dismisses the rest of the article, “cloud-capp’d towers, gorgeous palaces, solemn temples” and all.