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Monday, November 25, 2013

The Hardest Times at Cargo Cults

Imagine working in a Cargo Cult. You're coming of age and the tribal leaders assign you a position in the watch tower. You are issued your coconut-stick head set and given detailed instructions on what to do. Each ceremony you do exactly as told and you look to the skies. The planes never come. As a young person you have only heard of the planes and the cargo, never seen them. After a while you start to wonder wherein lies the problem. Is it you? Is it the old lady with the barbed wire wrapped around her body (the radio lady)? It couldn't be the leaders. They know too many details about the ceremony. What if they have it wrong though? You wonder if the chief really is communicating with the people in the airplanes when he channels them through the radio lady.  Could you take the chiefs place and talk to them?

One day you awake for the biggest ceremony of the year. The annual Cargo Cult Superbowl! Everyone attends. All hands are on deck and everyone is believing to the best of their faiths ability. You take to the tower, don your headset and perform the ritual you were taught. You look to the skies. You look to the Chief and the radio lady. You wait and wait and once again, no airplanes come. As dawn comes you come down from the tower to return to your hut to sleep. No cargo will be waiting for you when you wake. Just rice and berries as usual for you daily meals.

What year is a good year in the Cargo Cults? Did you almost see an airplane back in 94? When you've got a group of people who have never seen the airplanes land, you have a problem. Somehow you have got to get people who have failed and succeeded on your team. The best example I have from my career was when the large successful contract manufacturing organization banned our director and his immediate reports from participating in the process development of product. Our people had neither failed nor succeeded. They had showed up to work for years (still do) with the "fake it til you make it" philosophy. The CMO had had enough and they called us out. They exercised the option in the contract to exclude members of our team from the alliance between our two companies.

I saw myself as the young boy in the watch tower watching the empty skies. One day I came across this CMO and a few others who I believed had seen the planes and the cargo. The CMO had been in business for many decades and had made drugs for many companies. The other people I met taught classes in process development and they made sense when they spoke, unlike members of my tribe. I wanted out from under the leadership of those who have neither failed nor succeeded to learn from those who had. My tribe let me out but in a manner that would exclude me from participating with other tribes. I had had enough of everything I had done before, but I still had an interest in the biotechnology of drug manufacturing. After so many years of working in biotechnology, I finally had enough information to decide where I wanted to work.

The layoffs are the direct result of the Cargo Cult mentality. The layoffs are business as usual. The layoffs are a business decision that replaces actual changes to the role that kid up in the watch tower needs to have value. For those who think they are seeing a surge, check out this article. According to the author there had been a perceived lull in job cuts that had been moving at a "breakneck pace starting in 2011". In reality, 8,793 jobs were lost from January to August of 2013. In 2012 9,626 jobs were lost, only 9% more. When Mercks job cuts are accounted for, 2013 is going to be a worse year than 2012.

Just to randomly check a few other data points, here is an article from 2002. How about 2009? 2007? If you look hard enough you will find that only a handful of companies have succeeded at bringing a drug to the market. Those fortunate enough to have that experience have much to teach. However, they too live the perilous life where important decisions made by others can bring their employment to an end. When a good job turns south and is eventually terminated, the value of that employee is only in that employees understanding of what happened. In order for that person to go on and contribute to the improvement of the biotech industry, they must understand what went wrong and find a new position that specifically intends to mitigate the risks that ended the last position. If a person has real value, the position must extract that value.

In the history of the industry we have always had hard times. Layoffs became the norm long ago. Just as the leadership class has yet to solve the mystery of generating value from the lab, so has the laboratory class.

Recently Frederick Sanger died at the age of 95. He left behind much to study. He won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, one for his work on the structure of proteins and a second for contributions concerning the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids. A man such as this was certainly a member of the leadership class but he included a followership role with science as his boss. He worked in the lab! While we've created a thousand hierarchy structures, business models, six sigma black belt methodologies and restructured our laboratory working class into a dizzy group of unemployed Home Depot employees, one guy had an interesting life. From Wikipedia:

He declined the offer of a knighthood, as he did not wish to be addressed as "Sir". He is quoted as saying, "A knighthood makes you different, doesn’t it, and I don’t want to be different." In 1986, he accepted the award of an Order of Merit, which can have only 24 living members.
In 2007 the British Biochemical Society was given a grant by the Wellcome Trust to catalogue and preserve the 35 laboratory notebooks in which Sanger recorded his remarkable research from 1944 to 1983. In reporting this matter, Science noted that Sanger, "the most self-effacing person you could hope to meet", was now spending his time gardening at his Cambridgeshire home.
Sanger died in his sleep at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge on 19 November 2013. As noted in his obituary, he had described himself as "just a chap who messed about in a lab" and "academically not brilliant".

If you care about science you should aspire to be this humble. The Cargo Cult boys and girls who work up in the  tower are working in boring mundane jobs. However, our responsibility is to demonstrate value. We are hired to develop drugs. The question is how much our work contributes to the big picture. We try and try but every year we face hard times. The hardest times for the laboratory workers are not a particular year or a tough economic downturn. It's a season that comes over and over in the life of the lab. The hardest times come when everyone is sent home and the labs sit empty. At any given moment in our industry, hard times are happening.  

For those roughly 9,000 who lost their job in October of this year need to know they are joining another class of roughly 9,000 men and women who lost their biopharma jobs in October of 2012. This is bigger than them. They work in a Cargo Cult. Frederick Sanger did not. Somewhere we too should be able to find a lifetime of productive scientific work. A little humility and unpleasant lab work will lead to the kind of work that serves as the proverbial shoulders of giants for future geniuses to stand upon. We should aspire to simply be chaps who mess about in the lab. Those who tell the best stories are those whom we should watch closest. 
Sanger, F. (Annu. Rev. Biochem., 1988, 57, 1): "Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it. I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking."

That is the difference between successful scientists and successful Cargo Cult Scientists. The CCS thinks up narratives and talks about them. The weakened laboratory class is sent to the lab to "do". These are the people who are most vulnerable during the hard times. It is fortunate for the scientific community that Frederick Sanger did not have to work for biopharma. 

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