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Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Brain Drain

Long ago, the Allied forces built and ran the airports that the cargo cults still to this day try to emulate. The aeronautics, logistics, geography and so on were put together in a system that escaped the observations of the natives. They recreated only what their eyes saw from behind the palm trees.

Likewise, the scientists of long ago created bodies of knowledge in a manner that is not practiced by the Cargo Cults of modern science. The first thing they held dear was reproducibility. Usefullness beyond ones career. As Newton pointed out in Principia Mathematica:
Rule I. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.
Rule II. Therefore to the same natural effects we must, as far as possible, assign the same causes.
First, these scientists of yore had to apply the scientific method to conduct their research, form explanations and causes. After years of honing explanations and causes they organized and wrote down their thoughts in the form of a text. They all felt that their understanding of mathematics or the natural world was worthy of passing on to future generations. Newton was so impressed with himself that he wrote Principia Mathematica in latin to discourage the wrong people from bastardizing his work. The great scientists of yore knew they were right and they had great confidence that what they had to say was reproducible and extremely useful. Lacking computers, the large collections of paper with hand written information were organized and kept until they day they brought them to the publisher. Therefore the information was in a very precarious position. What if a fire broke out? The information had to sit inside their heads until it was put down on that highly flammable paper. Lucky for us it has survived.
What then can we say about the body of knowledge that has been formed through biotechnology? Thanks to computers, it can be kept safe, if only someone were to take the time to write about our science. Occasionally we get ancillary texts. Lars Hagel, has written the seminal work on downstream process development. It's not a philosophical piece on how biotechnology research works. It's about one technology that is required in the business. He has published two editions of "Handbook of Process Chromatography". This is an example of good science. Anyone who has a job in downstream process development needs to read this book. Lars Hagel put it all down for the industry and future generations. He is just one example of a modern scientist who has something to say, people willing to let him say it, and an audience willing to listen and learn.

What about an individual company? I've worked for five. All but one no longer exist. The one that does is among the worst offenders when it comes to creating a Cargo Cult culture. If they were to write a text book for the benefit of others what would it say? What is the path from nothing to a drug on the market? What is that drug, what does it do, and how did we figure that out? It is not a simple nor is it complex. It is complicated. Thus, we could write a text book that is understandable to most people with an interest in science. We're not talking about Principia Mathematica here. The reason this text will not be written however is because the "scientists", all of whom have PhDs from very good schools, are now businessmen. They do not have the same interests that scientists of yore had. Rather than a text book laying out a lifetime of science, they have a string of biotech companies and executive positions. They have money in the bank. Yet the world will not benefit from their lives.

Who will even bother to make an attempt to put down in writing the science of biotechnology 1980 to 2012? We have ancillary texts like Lars Hagels book but it's not biotechnology. It's chemistry. It's physics. It's math. Drug development biotechnology is science, business, FDA regulations, clinical trial enrollment, patents, human resources, milestone payments, contract organizations, alliance management, and on and on. Many of these things will not be relevant to future  generations. The FDA will change (it must). The laws will change. The investors and doctors will all have a different set of rules. So what can we write a text book about? How to clone a piece of DNA? There are ancillary text books on this subject as well. The complicated task of writing a text book for future generations on how to create a successful science/technology company should begin with a similar set of rules as Newton. By now we should know that there are limitations to what we can do. We should also know that reproducible work is essential.
The leaders of the actual Cargo Cults in the Pacific Islands could write a book on aeronautics. It would be fun to read. If each tribesman could write out a description of their daily duties we could begin to study the leaders. Therein is the beginning of our study of the Cargo Cults of biotechnology. The leaders have many things in common. Likewise the tribesmen have things in common, that distinguish them from the leaders. There are patterns to identify and write down. There are philosophies to follow such as the preference for sexy narratives over boring reproducible science. The study of  biotech Cargo Cults however is losing very important information. With every round of layoffs from Pfizer, Astra Zeneca and so on, we lose a handful of long term tribesmen (and some leaders) to their inability to carry on. They take with them a knowledge of a daily life that we can learn from. Some of us learn a great deal from our mistakes. Each tribesman can speak of the mistakes they've been involved in. They can speak about the culture of their tribe. They can give us job descriptions and their titles. Did each watchman wear the same coconut headset and what did they do with it?

Once the information is gathered we would have to sit down and sort it all out. What were the trends? Was there a common thread among the success stories that the failures were missing? In the real cargo cults we could point to the study of aeronautics being absent among the cults but present in the Allied forces. If we were martians looking at this world we would come to the conclusion that aeronautics was essential. Likewise, to take a case from my own experience, Lars Hagels knowledge in process chromatography is essential. The company I worked for did not believe so and they had to suffer great expense. It is still possible this aspect of the company will be their downfall. If so, we could have an essential element to write down in our text. It comes with a philosophy as well. Process chromatography is an area in which a drug development company must employ highly skilled people, just as an airplane manufacturer must hire aeronautical engineers.

Our story is ready to be written. If you've worked in the business and you think you have something to say, organize our thoughts. Offer them to PLOS ONE and the Reproducibility Initiative. Someday the cargo culture will begin to shift. Someday perhaps, when Susan Koman wants to invest their research dollars will skip the Cargo Cult minefield and invest in someone else. Imagine a multi-million dollar project that involves reproducing work and finding the most promising paths to walk down. Imagine having the first edition of a text that will help lead the way. We've spent the money. We have thousands of minds to tap into.

It's not fire that threatens our text. It is our own apathy.

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