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You know that I’m on a long airline flight when I start blogging about something I’ve read in an in-flight magazine. I’m somewhere over the Great Plains as I write this, and American Airlines is telling me that drug companies need anthropologists to help them manage their scientists.

If they’d left it at that, I probably would have nodded my head. If you can do field work with savage Amazon tribes, you could probably feel right at home observing some lab corridors I've worked in. But no, since this was (like most airline magazine pieces) geared to the needs of middle managers, we get a brief case history:

A new CEO at Pfizer Pharmaceutical (sic, and boy, that narrows it down, doesn’t it?)wanted company scientists to operate differently, but they balked. Anthropologist Marsha Shenk asked them what they’d define as a more effective operation. The scientists realized that ever since they were grad students, they’d been in business to keep their projects funded for as long as possible – because in science, funding is a status symbol. But in business, it’s more efficient to kill projects that don’t show potential for big financial payoffs. About-face! They moved from judging themselves by how long they could string a project along to how quickly they could quash it.

Well, all right, then! We should be seeing some results from that innovative Pfizer approach real soon now, don’t you think? Honestly, though, this passage makes me want to bury my head in my hands. Where to begin?

Let’s see. . .how about we start by pointing out that grad students generally don’t worry much about keeping their projects funded, once the grant application is approved, which is mostly the boss's problem. Grants are written for entire programs of research, and a large graduate group will have several going on simultaneously. The folks working on one project aren’t competing with the ones working on a different one, since they’re funded through different means.

Now let’s try that “funding is a status symbol” line out. I can see how this was an anthropologist’s work, but we’re not talking about feather headdresses (or fancy cars). Funding is indeed a status symbol for professors, but for their students? Their status tracks with the name of their professor, the department they’re in, the perceived hotness of the project they’re working on, and so on. And what does this have to do with industrial drug discovery? Most lab heads and bench scientists don’t spend much time on budgets for individual projects. The money’s there. The company knows about how many programs it can run, with a reasonable number of people on each one. You're working on one of them, or another one of them, and when you're through you'll work on yet another.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s no competition to keep your program alive. That’s the main way that this whole anthropological excursion makes sense. But project leaders want to keep their teams going because they want to deliver, not just for the sheer sake of keeping things going. (You come across people once in a while who have their priorities confused on this, but that tends to get straightened out after it gets noticed by higher management). There's always a case to keep going. Hope does little more than spring eternal, and I’ve never seen a drug discovery program that didn’t think it could solve its problems if it just had a little more time. That’s the thing that spins projects out – they all have problems, and they’re all trying to solve them.

Ah, now we get to the "big financial payoff" part. So, it’s more efficient to kill the losers off, is it? Who knew? You’d think that companies would think about the financial prospects for a drug before they even started a project... and you know, here outside the pages of in-flight magazines, that’s just what they do. The projects that don’t look like they could pay off don’t get started in the first place, so you’re left with a bunch of projects, all of which could be profitable if they’d just work. Now perhaps a team of anthropologists can come in and tell us which ones will.

And as quickly quashing... well, just as there's always a reason to keep going, there are always plenty of reasons to stop. Every single major drug I've ever heard of has been near death more than once. If you make killing things your priority in drug discovery, you risk killing off everything. Remember, the overwhelming majority of drug projects die at one point or another as it is.

But we’re supposed to think that this strategy hit the Pfizer scientists like a hot sizzling bolt of truth. They fell to their knees, confessed their project management sins, and resolved to lead new lives. Anyone at Pfizer want to bear witness for us unenlightened types?

Source: Pfizer: Run! Anthropologists!