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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pharmaplasia and Us

What ails the pharmaceutical industry? There are many perspectives. The one from the leaders of Seattle is that nothing ails us. We're doing fine. Then there are the others.

I've just started reading Pharmaplasia by Mike Wokasch. He is coming from the executive level in business and marketing. He has worked as a pharmacist, a pharmaceutical sales representative, marketing manager for blockbuster products, and he has held corporate officer positions at large and small companies. He is passionate about the need for expertise and professionalism in any career choice or job function.

Having yet to read the book, I am skeptical about the marketing side of pharmaceuticals. In Cargo Cult terms, his job is to make people believe that the planes are coming. He does not need to have any idea how a real airport works. After all of the business and marketing meetings are over, you still know absolutely nothing about the natural world or how the human body lives and dies. Yet M. Wakasch has taken an important step. He has admitted that there is a problem. In Cargo Cult terms, he acknowledges that the planes aren't going to be landing as advertised.

There is a distinction that has to be made however. A laboratory scientist is not considered a professional. We do not have the same kind of career paths as executives or marketing professionals. We do not make as much money. We are not expected to grow as laboratory professionals. The layoffs, such as Amgens announcement today, make laboratory workers who serve the R&D side of the industry less than professionals. We learn a skill such as running an ELISA and that becomes our "profession". We serve a piece of the puzzle being assembled by higher ranking PhD scientists who work out of offices. When they fail, we fail. A true professional must have some control over their livelihood. The laboratory professional lives each day in fear of the layoffs that result from not curing cancer. The marketing professional at least has some control over how a product sells, whether is works or not.

The current system is based on the assumption that leaders are the creative types who innovate. Pharmaplasia at least takes on the notion that we have not done well as of late. Here at the Cargo Cult Scientist, we believe that human beings have always had a problem with new and powerful ideas. New and powerful ideas upset the status quo. They elevate true innovators above those who sit comfortably in powerful positions. There is resistance. Imagine sacking the staff who makes the decisions and leaving behind the professionals who can take direction and quickly test the ideas of any leadership. Imagine a research staff held accountable only for executing the experiments set forth by them by the leaders. The outcomes of the experiments must be dealt with intelligently and scientifically by the leadership. When they fail, they shouldn't be allowed to wash it all away by laying off the laboratory staff.

As I read on in Pharmaplasia, I am certain I will find new things to write about. As a former "professional" who was placed into various silos and pigeon holes, I am certain I will be receiving an education as to how those who put me there think. My own inability to effectively communicate with the leaders of my cults is of little concern to me. I see the fallout everyday when I read about "massive layoffs, slowing revenue growth, a major blockbuster “patent cliff”, disappointing R & D productivity, never-ending product liability lawsuits, allegations of illegal marketing and sales activities that lead to billion dollar fines and settlements, and the list goes on" (as stated on the Pharmaplasia website) I know I wasn't exactly wrong about my predictions. I feel we in the industry are average people convinced that we are Einsteins. Certain things prevent us from succeeding but those things can be overcome. You do not hire a group of recent college grads and tell them to go make an airplane. You need experience and not just any experience. You need professionals. Those professionals must then produce new professionals. The most important thing is that the airport works.

I no longer work in the industry. I've moved far from the hubs of biotechnology. Yet I still care. The complexity of the human body makes R&D the most perilous profession out there. Research and development remains an area where human beings will always attempt to employ the scientific method. It is that method and the Cargo Cult Science approach that keeps my interest. I long for the day when we begin to face our failures and learn from them. You can layoff the laboratory staff but you are left with a poorly educated (and I'm not talking about the University education) group of professionals who do the bidding of those who never seem to suffer the consequences of bad science. Good luck to the Amgen R&D folk who have lost their jobs. You are tribesmen. Learn from your experience. Speak out. Tell us what you think went wrong. Read Pharmaplasia. Read. Write. Think. Talk.

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