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Faradays and collaborators

This week, I am at a science summit in Philadelphia, atrios’ urban hellhole. The traffic is miserable, the parking is expensive (although, yesterday, I found a lot that only charged me $10 for the whole day. No sexual favors involved. Go figure.). I love public transportation but this is not a post about that.

No, this is a post about management schizophrenia.

Yesterday, Yvonne Martin, the doyenne of drug design, gave a presentation. The science was retrospective but her commentary on the state of pharma management was scathing. Well, in general there’s a lot of commentary in general about the way modelers have been written off and excluded from patents and publications. Everyone here has a story to tell about how the pressure to get credit for a design drives people to shut out their collaborators.

Yvonne’s tale is a little different. She worked with a talented designer in her group and had high respect for his work. They enjoyed collaborating. But her employee couldn’t get a promotion. Why? Because management had decided (erroneously in Yvonne’s estimation) that the employee only did what Yvonne told him to do. He was judged incapable of doing his own work. Yvonne said she thought it was because management does not really value collaboration. Then she said, “or maybe it’s because I’m a woman.”

Jeez, I hate to keep coming back to this but when a person who has been in the business a long time sees things this way too, there might be a problem. I have worked for two extraordinary supervisors. I learned a lot from both of them. Both of them preferred collaboration. Neither of them are appreciated for their skill in bringing people together to work productively. One of them was a woman. And recent studies suggest that the more women you have in your working groups, the more creative and productive your group will be because they are more likely to share information and cooperate on solving problems.

More distressing is the idea that because a person is less senior, their contributions are instantly attributed to their manager. This is a symptom of what management wants rather than what they say they want.

What management says it wants is collaboration and breaking down walls and sharing information. They have the graphics department put together little origami paper pamphlets showing the “dos” and “don’ts” of good corporate behavior. We all study these things and dismiss them because data and observation confirm that is is precisely the “don’t” behaviors that are rewarded. Secrecy? Check. Don’t share information? Check. Cutting people out of the loop? Check. People who believe in the value of collaborating and crowd sourcing, those people are willing to share the credit. But the minute you do that, you lessen your own contribution in the eyes of management and you aren’t ambitious and competitive enough.

So, there are more and more stories at this summit of chemists cutting modelers out of the loop, refusing to make molecules that aren’t their ideas and jobs lost without a paper trail because the designer is thought to be junior and therefore easier to write off. What takes the place is a system where the non-collaborators are encouraged to take credit for other people’s work and are rewarded for it. It’s a system where loyalty is more important than work effort. It’s a system where hierarchy and pedigree takes the place of ability.

In short, it’s the same kind of system that existed in the early 19th century Britain when gentlemen scientists with money and educations limited to the well heeled class held sway in the scientific societies of the day and when the works of people like Michael Faraday, without the formal education and from working class backgrounds, were vulnerable to the ambitions and entitled behavior of their betters.

It is Michael Faraday who is remembered as one of the greatest experimentalists ever. But it was an uphill struggle. America was supposed to be a land of opportunity where anyone with a good idea could get a shot and that has been our greatest strength in terms of innovation. When the home schooled (Edison) and the college dropouts ( zuckerman, jobs, and gates) were able to innovate without barriers, we were great as a country.

But these are the days when pedigree and ruthlessness trumps all. When it’s more important that one person is designated as the innovator and automatically gets the credit no matter what they do, the barriers for good minds to gain entry and participate become too high. What results is a lot of top heavy departments. A lot of people who want to direct and are forced to pursue the top spot and fewer people who work together to solve problems.

Collaborators and Faradays beware.

25 Responses

  1. Very true. Management pays lips service to teamwork but rewards the “star player”. You get to be a “star player” by keeping critical info to yourself, hogging the high-profile tasks, and backbiting your teammates.

  2. Edison’s greatest invention was not the light bulb, it was th research lab. Edison assigned the work and in some cases carried much of the load but a lot less would have been accomplished without the scores of researchers, the library, the huge working lab.

    Funny, Edison was a lousy business man. He lost control of GE. But Edison was a great and productive team leader. He may have hogged a lot of the glory but he certainly was not laying people off.

    Stars in movies, research, finance, baseball, or the military need a supporting cast. I guess this group hasn’t learned this yet but they will when the cupboard runs bare.

    • Fug Edison. He stole most of his stuff from the real genius, Tesla. That’s Nicola Tesla. Google him out.

      • Nicola tesla was in love with a pigeon.
        Otherwise, brilliant dude.

      • Edison’s most famous inventions had nothing to do with Tesla. The light bulb was patented in 1878 when Tesla was not even in the country. The motion picture included a lot of work from another of Edison’s employees, not Tesla. Edison, because of his hearing problem was vitally interested in the phonograph.

        Tesla, as an employee of Edison, improved his generator but wanted to make $50,000 for a years work. Edison was paying him $18 a week. Tesla was “jokingly” promised the windfall equal to the capitalization of Edison’s entire company.

        Later, Tesla was able to get royalties for thew work he did for Westinghouse. Paid researchers rather than a royalty based system is the basis of corporate research.

        Yes, Edison and Tesla feuded. Edison mellowed but Tesla always remained vicious. When Edison died, 40 years after their breakup, newspapers carried dozens of praises and one message of condemnation and quite frankly hate: Tesla’s.

        He was a brilliant man but not apparently a nice one. And his generators and coils and 110 patents don’t equal Edison and his corporate research lab or even come close.

        Believe me, I googled Tesla and looked up multipole sites. Like Edmund Burke or Ronald Reagan he’s someone where the myth seems to exceed the fact. Unlike Burke or Reagan there is considerable fact.

  3. sounds like that was a good trip.RD.

  4. It is all about the bottom line, mesays. The profit that companies could make has become the driving force of those companies, collaboration, employees, driving force be damned.

    • I have maybe tested 2 really good drugs. All the rest have been phony. And the FDA testing procedure is ridiculous. Everybody cheats when doing these studies.

      • I once spent 3 years working in a medical device mfg Regulatory Affairs dept. When the company did their demonstration for the FDA, the patient died during the procedure. No problem – approval given. We then hired one of the reviewers.

        Legal monitored every word we sent in response letters to complaints and events where the device caused injury or death to the patient.

        • I hate to tell you this but today’s FDA approves very, very little of what we discover. That’s why there is a “patent cliff” and “valley of death” coming up. The blockbuster patents are expiring and there is nothing getting approved to take their place. It’s very serious.
          Ya know, generics sound all fine and dandy until you realize that there’s nothing new on the horizon because the big companies can’t afford research anymore. Or they can’t afford something anymore so they cut back on research. Either way, it results in fewer choices for the consumer and older products with less efficacy and potentially more liabilities.
          You don’t have to believe me but since I am quite a bit closer to the actual scenario than most people in the blogosphere, you might want to give my statements some serious thought. And I’m telling you that no matter how many antecdotal stories you can come up with that the FDA is doing a quid pro quo for approving potentially dangerous drugs, I can show you many, many examples of submissions in the past 10 years where a drug that was very expensive to develop ended up in the FDA’s circular file.
          Just because it doesn’t mesh with the left’s mythology about how things are done at the FDA doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    • Yes, companies are all in the business of shareholder value and short term gain. Nobody makes cars, airplanes, drugs, furniture… just shareholder value and the cars, airplanes, drugs and furniture are now the means to the shareholder value but not the purpose of the company’s existence.

  5. Don’t know about Zuckerman as I only saw Social Network. Jobs and Gates started working together and split because Gates wanted anyone to be able to code software for them to test it and debug it and Jobs wanted to keep control. So they split. Gates designed Office Mac for Apple and helped Apple through a rough period. Now Apple is not supporting anything except the intel chip and everything else will be obsolete in about 18 months. And it’s slow now and getting slower as I type on my pre intel chip.

    I got dropped from a PhD program at Delaware when my office mate (a guy) stole all my original work and my advisor gave it to him and knew it was mine. I never told them what I knew (the dot problem you see in the sunday funnies-that was mine) and it took them 2 decades to figure out what I walked away with inside my head. The office guy who stole it from me went on to write books and lecture on ethics. I’d love to name him here. He would still be pecking out dot matrices on a typewriter if it weren’t for me. This was almost 50 years ago and I’m still mad but very glad I am not a tenured professor getting dumber by the year in academia. I have tested a lot of drugs for pharma. That way I get paid well and can read non-stop while I am in. But I am finished with that now and am working on an antenna made locally so you can have free wifi without the monthly bills ever again. Screw the man! Not to worry riverdaughter, you are gonna be glad you are out of it. It will just take time.

  6. Traci Johnson, 19, hanged herself Saturday at Eli Lilly Co.’s hotel-like research lab at the Indiana University Medical School. She had recently stopped taking the pill, duloxetine, after about a one-month period, the drug company said. (paste from google, occurred in Feb 04.)

    I was in this $4300 study with Traci. This drug was the worst that anyone I knew had ever taken. You could see when they got it instead of the placebo. It was so foul a Chinese graduate student had to drop after 3 days. Tested in Feb 04 and on the market as Dyprexa (close I think) by April 04, so please tell me how that happened.

    • I have no idea. If it was as bad as you say it is, it’s *extremely* unlikely to have been approved by the FDA.
      Seriously. Drugs like that would never make it through the approval process. You don’t know today’s FDA. If it’s that bad, it would be yanked.
      Sooo, there must be an unmet need and efficacy that this drug addresses.

    • I looked this up, it’s Cymbalta? I took it for a long time for both depression and for nerve pain which was the cause of the depression. It worked wonderfully for me until my new insurance would not pay for it and I was getting samples, but running out and the docs office would be out too and going in to withdrawal almost monthly.
      My sister still takes it for nerve pain from Lyme disease. I think it works well for a lot of people and compared to some other drugs I have taken (topamax) , the side effects were minimal. It must really have disagreed with some people, but that was not my experience.

  7. Just remember what Uncle Al (Crowley, that is) used to say:

    Knowledge is Power.
    Knowledge shared is Power lost

    • Yes, it’s power.
      But it isn’t science.

      You can’t sell power.

      • Can’t sell power? Politicians do it all the time. Lobbyists institutionalize it.

        I suspect that in “scientific” companies that “smart people sell power disguised as the appearance of knowledge and get out before things collapse.

        Anybody notice the article at Philly.com where Synthes seems to be selling out to J&J after their game collapsed?

  8. can’t find the donate button??? 😦

    • Don’t have a donate button. If I accepted money, I’d start to enjoy it too much to tell readers when they are completely wrong about something. It’s better this way. Trust me.

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