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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Obama Said There'd Be Days Like This


While perusing the television stations to find the Cardinals/Mets baseball game I was suddenly privy to an interview on Oprah. Honestly, I wasn't watching Oprah! I was looking for the ballgame! The man being interviewed was Barack Obama. I listened long enough to take away one very valuable piece of advice.

He said that we all need to be useful. That's the advice, now think about it. If you look at someone like Paris Hilton you might wonder what use she is to society. In spite of her lack of talent, she is useful. People like looking at her photos apparently and reading about her escapades. She has put herself in the spotlight and thus she is used to sell magazines and movies. She has a book out about her life up to the age of 20. It's not useful to me, but there are some book publishers out there that felt she was useful. People pay her just to show up at their parties. So, in spite of what some might think about her talents, she is useful.

The question we have to ask about the Biotech/Pharmaceutical industry is this. How useful are scientists? The take over of Icos by Eli Lilly sent out the message that the end result of scientific research is very important. The path taken to discovery is not. We here at the Cargo Cult Scientist are waiting for the job cuts to be announced. It's not an if, but a when issue. Will all of the research be halted at Icos? Will experienced researchers be tossed out on the street again?

In the golden age of Hollywood, silent movie actors became more famous than any human beings had ever been. When the talkies began these actors soon became obsolete. Actors with stronger voice skills became more useful. The golden age of biotechnology seems to gone the way of the silent movies. The industry still cranks out pills, but the scientific research that goes into them has changed. Real science is not as useful as having a good friend in the FDA. A bad idea backed with a lot of money will go further than a good idea with no money. For the short attention span leaders, sales people are more useful than early stage scientists. The universities and the industry do not hone the skills of it's laboratory work force. They are not as useful as a pretty drug rep moving the product. The message is clear. If you develop pills, you are failing us. If you sell the pills, you make the company go. You are useful.

What do you do if you've spent your career working with DNA and proteins in the lab? What do you do if you are an Icos employee who was working on the next molecule to be tested as a drug? In the Northwest, Icos was the biggest success story since Immunex. There is no one in line ready to snatch up your talents. The golden age of biotech is over. You're now like a silent movie star circa 1935. You need to reinvent yourself to become useful again.

Barack Obama made a very important point. Be useful. What does that mean if you are a scientist in the drug industry? To the Cargo Cult Scientist it means tack on more degrees and position yourself in front of drugs that are headed to the market. Get a PhD and supervise a crew of HPLC operators. Get an M.D. and run clinical trials. Finish up that masters degree and get into a CRA certification program. If you stay back and try to develop new drugs, you will fail. You will be a part of the problem that is no longer being tolerated by the industry. There is one hope that the Cargo Cult Scientist has however. If you feel like you are the type of person who thinks scientifically, take a chance. Stay back anyway and learn how DNA works. Work in a lab. Learn how to measure protein levels inside the human body. Learn learn learn. That doesn't mean tack on degrees to further your career. Learn how it really goes down in the laboratory. When the industry runs out of new and expensive drugs to sell, you just might be useful again.

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