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Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Squeaky Floor In the Rat Maze

There have been over 12,000 layoffs announced so far this year at Tekeda, Novartis, Alnylam, and Astra Zeneca so far. Genzyme is letting go an undisclosed amount of their R&D staff in Massachusetts. The exact tracking of layoffs and the consequences is difficult. An outsider, if they had the real stats on our field, may wonder why biotech and pharma drug researchers have such a high rate of layoffs. The best explanation I have heard is from a comment on "In The Pipeline" blog regarding the AstraZeneca layoffs:
If new effective drugs were being discovered all the time there would be no layoffs. The reason they are not being discovered, is that drugs are agents trying to alter a system that is only dimly understood (the cell and its interactions with other cells).


In Feynmans Cargo Cult speech he speaks of a rat maze that was studied by a researcher. The rat maze is a system used to extract an understanding of how rats think. Upon closer scrutiny, the rat maze was dimly understood. The researcher published his findings but it was not well received:
I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next
experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young.
They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on
sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats
in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries
of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn't
discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the
things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not
paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of
cargo cult science. - R. Feynman


The discovery was about research, not rats. You would think we would make research a field of research. But we assume we already understand that system too.

Ignoring things we don't think will get us noticed, things that aren't sexy enough to advance our careers has led us to the continued high rate of layoffs. Those of us who work at the bench level should know when we are working in a cargo cult. When your leaders ignore the murky research methods and they push you along with projects that support a narrative they have prepared, you work in a cargo cult.

The big picture narrative for biotechnology and big pharma is that we fully understand what is happening inside of cells. To prove that, we will be curing and treating diseases. The truth is that we have a dim understanding of the system we are studying. We even have a dim understanding of the tools we use to conduct our research. Human beings have figured out how make a large chunk of metal fly from one side of the ocean to the other. The human body is a far more complex system than that airplane, yet the science is softer.

The amount of layoffs is an indication that we do not know enough about our proverbial rat maze. The scientist who does not know or who has ignored information about the squeaky floor will send forth his staff to obtain information that supports his/her narrative. But in the end the staff will go away, having learned very little. Those who noticed the squeaky floor and failed to make the leadership stand up and take notice will become disgruntled. They may question their ability to apply good science in the world they work in. A trillion dollars can be lost. Several hundred thousand jobs will be created and lost in the process. A lab will sit empty until another sexy narrative is created by a charismatic young wiz kid. The lights will come back on in the lab and the old rat maze will be brought out again.

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