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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Loss of Tribesmen

Roche announced the closing of its New Jersey R&D hub taking away 1000 jobs. Amgen is going to shut down their Longmont plant where Epogen was produced. They employ around 400 people. Dendreon is cutting around 600. These are just a few recent stories of the Cargo Cults shedding their tribesmen. I worked with a lot of truly science minded people in the industry. Mostly however, I worked with Cargo Cult thinkers. When you have a majority of the latter, you have a sick industry with little need to keep the people around.

Long ago I floated the concept of biotechnology companies being fires lit along the runway of a Cargo Cult Airport. Since I began this blog we've gone through massive layoffs and massive company failures. All but one of the companies that I worked for have called it quits. They all shut down because of bad science fueled by an absolute requirement for specific results. I left the airport a couple years ago but I continue to watch the fires burning out. I continue to have conversations with scientists still in the business and I continue to sense the Cargo Cult mentality. As the industry continues to toss out it's tribesmen and tribeswomen, one has to wonder if the cumulative loss in expertise will affect its future productivity. If we are dealing with a true Cargo Cult, we should expect no loss. The guy in the watch tower with the coconut shell head gear really isn't doing any good. He won't be missed. 

The tribesmen may very well be going through an accelerated rate of job loss. New jobs are not being created and old ones are disappearing. Our leaders are the tribe members who are the best politicians thus they know to shield the publics eyes from the real numbers. Even the tribesmen who lose their jobs know its best to not draw attention to the possibility that our industry has disproportional job losses compared to other career paths. The numbers would most likely paint a picture of an unsuccessful group of human beings. This group was given billions of dollars, a wealth of scientific knowledge and they failed.

Cargo Cult leaders have a way of measuring the success of their lives and it's not based on successfully getting the airplanes to land. The cargo they seek has always been money. They measure success on how much money they earn before their fire burns out. IPOs are allegedly making a comeback which was a major factor in our dismal history. Many of the people that I've met base their success on maintaining employment within their cargo cult. Machiavellian tactics trump the scientific method. How many of these people are now sitting on that pile of discarded 2012 biotech/pharma scientists? With accelerated job loss comes a smaller population of leaders.

The true measure success is the ability to maintain the kind of integrity described to us by Richard Feynman in Cargo Cult Science.

So I have just one wish for you--the good luck to be somewhere
where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have
described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain
your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,
to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

A biotech company can still succeed when the measurement of success is an IPO or a few guys at the top getting rich. If we switch that measurement to reproducible work that is of some use, we will be doing science. We can still read the narratives and be impressed by the minds who dreamed up the possibilities. But then we have to get to work to find out if what they are saying is true. Some of the discarded scientists need to speak up and help us root out the Cargo Cultisms. The Reproducibility Initiative is a great idea and one that will be met with great opposition. If it survives we may have a new sheriff in town. Those who have lost their job, those who hate their current job and those who have tired of losing their investment money will have a new ally. I truly believe that opposition to this initiative is an example of Cargo Cult Science. Your science is suppose to work. It's suppose to be reproducible. Technology is the practical application of science. If your science is bullshit, your technology will not work. The planes will not come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The cargo they seek has always been money.

Elizabeth Iorns, chief executive of Science Exchange — a commercial online portal that matches scientists with experimental service providers — noticed that a number of drug companies were employing researchers to validate published results. It prompted her to develop the Reproducibility Initiative, a mechanism to replicate research results, with a particular focus on preclinical biological studies.

The Reproducibility Initiative will work through Science Exchange, which is based in Palo Alto, California.

Follow the money.