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The answer is money

And time.

This is another boring post on drug discovery but ignore it at your peril.

Derek Lowe has another nice post up about the discovery of new antibiotics.  Summary: it’s really hard.  But I think even Derek might be glossing over something that seems pretty obvious.  Discovering new antibiotics and getting over the rate limiting step of not finding anything new or effective for a long period of time is going to take a massive infusion of money.  That money is going to have to come from somewhere.  My recent conversation at a user group meeting resulted in shrugs from the participants.  We have no idea who is going to pick up the tab for the research, which we already know ahead of time is going to be massively expensive and fruitless for a long time.

But here’s the thing, if you don’t take the time (and money) to do it right, when will you have the time (and money) to do it over?  Do we need a new version of the plague to light a fire under the responsible parties to get this party started?  On the other hand, it was the plague that got the Renaissance started when it wiped out a lot of the naysayers that stood in the way of the experimentalists…

Yes, I know the low hanging fruit has been picked.  Yes, I know we need to educate the helicopter moms out there to stop dosing their kids with amoxicillin every time they get colds.  Yes, yes, yes, there are a million reasons why bacteria are hard to kill.  But the primary reason we are failing in drug discovery is the one we have been talking about for a while now.  The shareholders don’t want to spend money on it.  They’d rather look for get rich quick schemes.  Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of experienced American scientists who are vastly underemployed right now.

The next presidential candidates for 2016 better have policies to deal with this problem because the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

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Karen Ho: It’s not about full employment

Anthropologist Karen Ho, author of Liquidated, was on Virtually Speaking a couple of weeks ago.  Check out the whole interview here.

I wrote a series of posts about Liquidated, applying Ho’s observations of Wall Street culture to the pharmaceutical industry because I’m going to make you care about unemployed scientists no matter how much you think you hate them, dammit.  It’s that important.  Here are my posts:

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 1

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 2- Flexibility

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 3- Shareholder Value

The Strategy of no Strategy Part 4- Putting it Together

I have to add that the outrageous price of drugs has just as much to do with the left’s behavior as the right’s but that is for another post. The pharmaceutical industry is probably the only place where that statement is accurate.  I’m not just playing a “professional journalist” who has a fiduciary obligation to my employer to say that “both sides do it”.

Oh, and I also told you that the cost of generics is going to continue to rise.  You heard it here first.

Anyway, back to Karen Ho.  In her interview, she said something very interesting that I had been wondering about.  She said that the “culture of smartness” thinks that no one works harder than they do.  And that’s probably true.  The analysts on Wall Street work crazy hours, like about 100 hours a week.  That doesn’t mean they do anything of value or that is productive.  I’m not sure lining up bullet points within a pixel of their lives is a particularly good use of one’s time, even if the presentations are beautiful.  Content is more important, but that’s just me.  So, essentially, Wall Street takes 22 yr old ivy league graduates, throws them in a financial crash course for a couple of months and turns them loose on the world to work like maniacs.  It love bombs them and tells them they’re wonderful because they pull the levers of the world’s economy without sleep and then those same analysts grow up to leave nasty comments in pharmaceutical industry blogs.

What I’m referring to are the comments that Derek Lowe sometimes gets on his posts when he announces another round of mass layoffs at Merck or Glaxo or whatever.  Some asshole will say something to the effect that it’s ok because it clears out the “deadwood”.

The weird thing is, these layoffs frequently *don’t* clear out the deadwood.  Oh sure, there is some brush clearing but the thing is, if you are in a group run by a blessed manager, you could be the deadest of the wood and still survive.  And a lot of the deadwood is in the managerial class and they tend to have the salesperson’s gift for explaining why they should be retained while everyone under them is cut.  So, by the end of the day, after pharmageddon leaves smoking ruins in its wake, the people who are left are those that haven’t been inside the lab for years.

Anyway, I have to thank Ho for alerting me to who was leaving those comments.  Funny how they would even bother to check up on our horror and dismay at another medicinal chemistry group biting the dust.  But they really have no idea what they’re doing, hence The Strategy of No Strategy.

Chrystia Freeland also has an opinion piece in the NY Times about the role of plutocrats vs populists and social distancing.  Something about Freeland’s piece didn’t seem quite right though.  Freeland is taking it as a given that technology is hollowing out the middle class.  This may be true but I see things from a different perspective and mourn the blight that plutocracy has had on technological progress.

The truth is that we are now experiencing the golden age of biology.  We are learning so much about biological processes on a daily basis that it is hard to keep up.  There is so much we now know and so much yet to be discovered.  There is enough work to keep every chemist and biologist busy for the rest of their lives.

The problem is that no one wants to pay for discovering those mysteries.  There will be diseases that won’t be cured, processes that won’t be applied to other fields and whole new industries that won’t be founded because plutocracy is choking the life out of the discovery field in the name of shareholder value.  And now we have the Republicans and their sequester choking out the only hope we have that government will step in and pick up the slack where shareholder value has failed.

In a way, the demonization of science has helped this process along.  We’re just a bunch of Simon Barsinisters in white lab coats planning to take over the world and heedless of our impact on it.  That suits the lawyers and the politicians that feed on the “knit your own sandals” demographic just fine, doesn’t it Jay Ackroyd?  But it leaves science without any advocates.

The point that Freeland is missing and that Ho might understand better is that there doesn’t need to be a hollowing out of the middle class.  This country could become an unmatchable technology powerhouse once again if some of that money was put back into research at both an industrial and academic level.  But someone has to be willing to commit the money to the process and in the age of shareholder value, that’s not going to happen.  Research takes long term investment and continuity and stability, all three of which are severely lacking these days.  The countries that make the commitment to provide these three elements are going to come out ahead.

One other point I’d like to make has to do with what do we do to get it back on track.  One of the things I hated when I was on the school board was when a bunch of parents complained about the same thing over and over again but never offered any solutions.  Ezra Klein twittered yesterday: what is the country’s most challenging economic problem and what is the solution?  Here’s my answer: the problem is an out of control finance industry.  The solution is to phase out the 401K.  Regulation would also help but the 401K makes more and more of us reliant on risky Wall Street instruments and encourages a kind of recklessness.  A steady stream of 401K payroll deductions is like heroin to addicts.

It’s got to stop.

 

 

A bit of advice from a pharma researcher to UVA

You have been placed on the frontline of a global power struggle.  It’s between a bunch of rich people who are used to having their own way and YOU.

Pharma researchers have seen this crap played out for the last 20 years.  For us, it was one merger and acquisition after another.  Some bright young thing from Wharton gets it into his head that putting two pharmas together would be funner than leaving them alone.  It’s all about “synergy” or “strategic reinforcement of core competencies” or “paradigm shifts”.  So, a merger is forced on the labs and for the next two years, no one knows what the f&*( is going on, no work gets done and the best people leave while the local management wave their dicks at one another.  Then come the consultants who walk into a dysfunctional post merger landscape and say, “It’s dysfunctional”.  No shit, sherlock.  How about leaving us alone for awhile until things settle down?  Nope, the reengineering will go forward.  And with each iteration of restructuring, power gets more centralized.  This is a very interesting phenomenon because the consultants and executives at TownHall meetings *say* they want to promote decision making at a local level but the truth is that everyone is so scared to death of losing their jobs that they don’t dare challenge a decision made by anyone higher up. Yes men (and it’s ALWAYS men) get promoted.  Good managers and smart people go away. It happens so often that it must be deliberate.

It has occurred to me that sometime during the late 90’s, we labrats should have picked up our ehrlenmeyer flasks and walked out in a massive protest.  We should have raised hell, although it is even hard for me to envision what that might look like.  We should have gotten their attention and drawn a line in the sand and organized a professional organization with licensing and employment standards.  We should have made it very clear that we were not going to be pushed around anymore because it was destroying research and research is what we live for.

We didn’t.  Instead, we let the business people run research into the ground and fire off memos in bizspeak and plunder the research budget and continue to cater to the executives in the corner offices at the expense of the geeks in the labs.  This country will be paying for that for generations to come.

UVA is now engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that university founded by T.J. himself and dedicated to the proposition of respect and reverence for the liberal arts can long endure.  I’m here to tell you that if Helen Dragas hasn’t been forced to resign yet you are losing.  It doesn’t matter at this point if Teresa Sullivan is coming back.  She may be a great administrator but this fight is not about her anymore.  It is about how your future is being compromised by the usurpation of your university by a bunch of rich people who think that their success in business makes them smarter and more equal than you are.  If you let UVA go under without a fight, similar power struggles will happen at other schools.  And they too will go down like dominos.  Before you know it, you will be run by a corporate president who will look after the shareholders’ needs.  There will be a marketing department who will design your curriculum based on what’s hot this year.  Your faculty will have to compete for their jobs and will spend (even) more time undermining each other at your expense.  And the cost of everything will go up.  It will go into some fund that will be used to increase the value of the endowment or take risks in Malaysia on some upcoming business initiative.

You have got to scare the Board of Visitors, the governor and all of the alumni of UVA.  You’ve got to be bold, dramatic and push the envelope (without destroying any property or injuring people of course).  The interim president should be expected to ask you to calm down, that your actions will only lead to more disruption and damage to the university’s reputation.

This is a lie and should be disregarded.  The more you fight for the university and the ouster of the interfering rich donors, the better off your university will be.  Maybe it will be poorer but you don’t know that for sure yet.  You need to challenge the conventional wisdom that says that business people know how to manage best.

Continue to demand the ouster of Dragas and anyone else who helped her.  Do not let up until you get what you want.  Do not be dragged into negotiations.  They are merely a stalling tactic meant to deprive you of momentum and force.  Set up some barricades, camp out on the commons, and if you don’t get what you want, dematriculate.  Yep, just withdraw from your courses, get your money back and tell the university you won’t reenroll until your demands are met.

What is happening to you now is something the research industry, the Democratic party, the public unions and just about every other sector of society has had to put up with in the past 2 decades.  It is the gradual creep of authoritarianism promoted by people who have power and expect that you will just go along with anything they demand.  They think that you have been trained to be complacent and yielding.  Well, they’ve had so much success everywhere else, why wouldn’t they think that?  Now it’s your turn.  Learn from the rest of us and don’t make it easy for them.  Make this a battle they never want to engage again.

Good luck.

Here’s a video of last night’s action at UVA:

The Poster Child of “The Strategy of No Strategy”: Pfizer

Pfizer is trying to reinvent itself by shrinking, according to the New York Times. I can’t say that I’m surprised.  The CEOs and financial guys are still living in their own worlds.

The Strategy of No Strategy is strong in this one.  Oh such tasty morsels in this article.  Where to start.  How about this paragraph full of chewy goodness:

Pfizer — once the Big in Big Pharma — is making a radical shift, one being watched closely by the rest of the industry. It is getting smaller.

Last week the company announced it was selling its infant nutrition business to Nestlé for $11.85 billion, and it is expected to divest its profitable animal health business by next year. At the same time, the company is slashing as much as 30 percent of its research budget as part of a plan to focus on only the most promising areas, like cancer andAlzheimer’s disease.

1.) It’s getting smaller only 2 years after it made itself bigger.  Pfizer bought up Wyeth and laid off every single one of my friends and former colleagues in research.  It hired back a handful and sent them to Groton, CT.  I’ll get to Groton in a minute.

2.) It’s getting rid of valuable assets to concentrate on cancer and Alzheimers.  And why those two therapeutic areas, you ask?  Allow me to get cynical.  Well, more cynical than I already am.  These two diseases progress rapidly and the sufferers are almost desperate for a cure, cancer drugs get fast tracked for approval, toxicity profiles are relaxed, you can pretty much charge what the market will bear, and even if the drugs fail the patients rarely complain.  So, quick approval and no class action lawsuits.  What’s not to love?  Looks like you Lupus sufferers and schizophrenics are SOL though.

“It’s not necessarily smaller per se, it’s focused,” Ian C. Read, Pfizer’s chief executive, said in an interview Tuesday. “We are at our heart a biopharmaceutical company focused on applying science to improving people’s quality of life. That is what our core is. That is what will determine our success.”

{{rolling eyes}}

This part is good:

Drug executives are asking themselves: “What is it that we now face, given that in the past decade — when everything was going right — we didn’t build with this future in mind?” said Jeremy Levin, who oversaw a similar reorganization of Bristol-Myers Squibb and is about to take over as chief executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals.

At Pfizer, skeptics have questioned the decision to shed some of its most profitable units in favor of doubling down on the risky pharmaceutical business. Pfizer’s nutrition unit grew by 15 percent and animal health by 17 percent in 2011, while its pharmaceutical sales dipped by 1 percent. And Pfizer has suffered some notable flops over the last several years, including the failure of an experimental cholesterol treatment that was seen as a potential successor to Lipitor and poor sales of an inhaled insulin drug that the company eventually abandoned.

So, in the past decade, when everything was going right, why did Pfizer decide to eat smaller companies and lay off all the research staff and put companies and projects in a state of limbo while they merged, and how could that *possibly* result in not building with the future in mind?

Now it’s selling off it’s most profitable divisions.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that it’s doing it to pay off the shareholders, who must be obeyed after all:

The acquisitions, some said, turned Pfizer into a Frankenstein’s monster — a giant stitched together from the scraps of smaller companies that lurched forward with little purpose.

“I think the company sort of lost their way in the years before the Wyeth acquisition,” said Catherine J. Arnold, an analyst for Credit Suisse.

Ya think?  Hey, how about the next time a merger is in the works, we actually ask the people discovering drugs whether it is a good idea.

Oh and about that plan to cut research costs by 30%:

Even so, the company’s decision to cut research budgets as it is planning to recommit to its pharmaceutical core struck some as risky. Mr. Gordon, the Michigan business professor, called it a “magic trick.”

It’s a magic trick, however, that most major pharmaceutical companies are also trying. “The question is how do you remain successful and sustain your operations if you’re investing less and less in R&D?” said Kenneth I. Kaitin, a professor and director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Drug Development. “The answer to that is to try to find a new way and a more efficient mechanism for discovering and developing drugs.”

If you want to discover more drugs, cut research!  Everyone is doing it.  Let me just suggest to the “smartness” crowd and masters of the shareholder universe that the reason you don’t have any blockbusters is because you treated research like a red-headed stepchild while you were busily merging your little hearts out and collecting bonus checks.  “A more efficient mechanism for discovering drugs” now means outsourcing to China all the grunt work while trying to buy licenses for drugs from struggling and desperate former research staff who will sell them for a tiny fraction of what they may be worth.

Pfizer plans to reduce its research budget from $9.4 billion in 2010 to $6.5 billion to $7 billion this year. It closed a research center in Britain and has been trimming its facility in Groton, Conn., and moving resources to areas closer to universities in Boston and Cambridge, England.

In 2011, the company ended 91 projects, canceling programs aimed at treating bladder infection, for example, as well as one to treat nasal symptoms from allergies. Company executives have also said they will be on the lookout for smaller acquisitions to fill gaps in their portfolio, and will expand partnerships with academic institutions.

Mr. Read said the cuts would not affect the areas that the company has prioritized. “Most of what I cut had a low probability of success,” he said.

Those projects had an even lower probability of success after tens of thousands of research jobs were cut, the budget was slashed more times than a libidinous teenager in a horror movie and the rest of the staff was made to play a game of musical chairs moving from Princeton and Pearl River to Groton to not Groton but we don’t know where yet to Cambridge.  I’ve heard reports that the few former Wyeth staff have been laid off more than once since the merger.

Pfizer has to be the poster child of The Strategy of No Strategy.  They’ve abandoned some of their hardest, smartest workers, and I know some of these people so I know how good they are, to chase get-rich-quick-schemes from the oh so cleverer people at Harvard and MIT and then get Chinese PhDs at a fraction of the cost to churn out compounds in Shanghai.  Pfizer has completely abandoned the idea that it takes 10-15 years to discover and develop a drug, and that continuity of research is crucial.  Pfizer first acquired and then ripped apart all of the smaller pharmas under it to become a bloated behemoth of a leviathan that could be consumed by shareholders in wild abandon.  It’s left a big gaping hole in the pharmaceutical landscape and so far as I can tell, not one politician has bothered to find out why our drug discovery expertise is disappearing right before our very eyes.

Right about now, it is dawning on Wall Street, the CEOs and the investors that they have unleashed Pharmageddon and that they’ve made some big mistakes, not least of which is that the profits that can be shared are slowing down to a mere trickle.  Nevermind all the scientists who no longer have careers, what about their bonuses?? I don’t know about bonuses. My former colleagues and I should be worried about our pensions.  That big pile of cash is going to look mighty tasty and we are all headed for a seniority of deprivation if we don’t figure out a way to stop them from consuming it all.

Tuesday: The state of science

Staph Aureas colonies growing on what looks like a blood agar plate

Guys, the state of science in this country is truly messed up.  Pharmageddon continues with the big research companies still laying off in high numbers, especially here in the US, and getting out of certain research areas. (Jeez, 2009 was a very bad year for US scientists.  58,000+ of us let go in an industry where hiring freezes have been the norm for over a decade.) Some of those research areas might be important to you even if you don’t know it right now.

For example, did you ever wonder how your great grandparents coped without antibiotics?  We’re only a couple of generations away from the dark ages when unchecked infections lead to gangrene and amputation, sepsis and death.  But have you ever wondered how little it would take to get that whole ball rolling?  Well, here’s one modern account that should chill you to the bone.

Meet Lucy Eades, youtuber extraordinaire.  Lucy has been documenting her family’s evolution in intimate detail for several years now.  Lucy and I have wildly dissimilar lives.  She’s young, blond, pretty and busy with three children under the age of five.  She’s into homebirths, cloth diapers and attachment parenting.  I like dropping in on her channel because it’s like watching a documentary on some exotic culture I will never visit.

Last November, just after Thanksgiving, her daughter Jacelyn scratched herself below the waistband of her underwear.    No biggie, right?  Wrong:

The day after on Saturday she asked why it was so itchy as she was trying to find comfort while rubbing & scratching at it. I talked to her about how wounds can itch as it heals & it’s best not to touch because any open wound could become infected & that would result in an ouchie…more so in kid friendly terms.

Sunday she pointed the area saying it hurt & upon inspection I noticed a pimple. Not sure if it was a pimple or not, ant bite, or what, but a small pimple look alike bump that hurt. Nothing more.

Monday morning after she woke we immediately looked it over & noticed a small black dot in the middle of it. Aside from that nothing else had changed. We were thinking maybe a spider bite? Never know when you stay in a hotel. Called the Dr and we brought her in later that day during one of their open “sick” appointment time frames. Dr said it could be staph, we’ll keep an eye on it. Since we had just battled staph (what 2 weeks ago? if that?) that it was a likely that even if it wasn’t staph it could turn to staph. She prescribed us some oral & topical antibiotics and gave us instructions for hibiclens, etc. for if we needed to use them eventually we wouldn’t have to bring her back in & expose her to more winter illnesses being passed around. She was fine at this point. Nothing hurt, we went about our day.

Tuesday-Wednesday is when my memory starts to fail me. At some point she becomes uncomfortable & it’s confirmed staph. We were told staph is on every surface every person & we naturally have it on our skin because of this.Some are effected while others are not. Some people with open wounds are more susceptible to staph than others for no known reason. Jacelyn is one I guess. We go fill the script at the pharmacy on Wednesday and resort back to warm soaks in the tub & attempting to squeeze out the infection with no success. Dr office swapped patient information & called in wrong prescriptions. We received anti-fungal meds.

Thursday we call the Dr office back still trying to get the right meds & to inform them that the infection appeared to be spreading. She had a fever, her hip/leg hurt, & it was no longer draining the way it should resulting in a massive hard rock like lump. Her skin was even starting to look raw in that area. They said she needed the antibiotics for a while & it would help. That evening I told Joel I wasn’t comfortable with the situation & I was taking her to the children’s hospital.

It was officially Friday by the time we arrived here (still here). She was running a 102 fever at arrival. They set up the IV’s & talked about procedure in depth with me. They had to sedate her using three different types of medicine. We talked about all our options, pros, cons, side effects, etc. The whole works. I apologized for being annoying but told him I wanted to be as informed in this process as I could be.

In walks 2 nurses, the Dr, a medic & 2 other employees. This goes from being scary to serious feeling. It was like one those ER episodes where 50 rush in the room all doing something different. One dose of sedation was enough to put a grown 200+ lb guy under.

What follows is a nightmare of bad reactions to sedation, two surgeries to remove dead tissue and drain the wound, and a hospital quarantine.  Jacelyn has MRSA, Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.  MRSA has developed resistance to standard antibiotics and some strains of MRSA are resistance to Vancomycin, which has been considered the last line of defense.  Ironically, MRSA is dangerous because of the overuse and improper use of antibiotics.  Nevertheless, you would think that the drug companies would be all over this area of research, designing new antibiotics or different approaches to combatting bacterial infections.

You would be wrong.  This is one of the therapeutic areas that big pharma can’t wait to dump, along with reproductive health and central nervous system (CNS) drugs.  That’s because they’re difficult, expensive to develop, have narrow safety profiles, or, in the case of women’s reproductive health, prone to class action lawsuits.  Women have been their own worst enemies when it comes to reproductive health.  Some feminists have a tendency to see every therapeutic agent as a weapon of the patriarchy to control their bodies.  As if.  And side effects are unavoidable, although we’re getting better.  But the cost of defending what was intended to cure has become so expensive that pulling out of these areas is more cost effective than sinking more money into research.

It takes a long time and a lot of clinical trials to get a new antibiotic approved.  Not so much with oncology where the life or death nature of the disease leads to speedier approval of new drugs. And in the case of cancer treatments, there are far fewer lawsuits when the drug doesn’t work out quite as well as hoped.  Patients’ families are grateful for any extension of life.  So, that’s where pharmaceutical companies are putting their money. It’s a callous and mercenary business decision.  It wasn’t always like this but this is what results after mergers, quarterly earning mania, a quirky, capricious, anachronistic FDA and the high cost of defending lawsuits have worked their own special magic for a couple of decades.  No more research on antibiotics.  Don’t expect that big pharma will care about your staph infections or birth control after you’ve sued their asses off.

Yes, they’re greedy bastards at the top but that’s a different topic.  They weren’t always this bad.

So, sports fans, we’re getting perilously close to the days when a simple break in the skin could kill you.  Lovely.

********************************

Katiebird sent me a link to this article about scientific publishing and plagiarism by two University of Kansas bioinformatics researchers.

In the technical world of bioinformatics, the two University of Kansas computer scientists were riding high in 2009.

Mahesh Visvanathan and Gerald Lushington published three articles with an international audience. They were invited to make a poster presentation at a conference in Sweden.

Although a lack of airfare kept them from going, their real problem wasn’t a tight travel budget — it was plagiarism.

Portions of all three of their articles had been lifted from other scientists’ work. The entire summarizing statement in their presentation had come from someone else’s journal article.

In an endeavor such as science that relies on original work and trustworthy information, plagiarism and fraud seem out of place. But misconduct is being detected with increasing frequency. And while it may be that the scientific community is just getting better at sussing out fraudsters, some scientists fear the problem is growing.

Competition among researchers has taken on a harder edge, they say. More scientists are competing for limited grant money, faculty appointments and publication in top journals. This intense rivalry makes it tempting for some to cut corners and fudge results.

The number of scientists caught committing fraud remains small, but each case can cause real harm, from wasting time and resources of other scientists who follow false leads to putting lives in jeopardy with bogus health findings.

There is a difference between the kind of plagiarism that the Research Works Act is supposedly trying to address where researchers frequently lift methods, diagrams and pictures from other papers routinely.  That’s a kind of excusable plagiarism because new work frequently is dependent on older work.  In that respect, the RWA could have a chilling effect on scientific publishing if it were rigorously enforced.  It’s quite another thing when your conclusions and whole paragraphs of explanatory text are lifted straight out of someone else’s publication.

But the pressure to publish is intense and, unfortunately, there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there who rationalize about what they’re doing.  While I can’t comment on how rife the academic world is with examples of plagiarism from other people’s publications, I suspect that the practice is alive and well in the corporate setting where the Wall Street financier’s value system has trickled down to the laboratories.  Well, you can hardly blame the more senior people for doing it or rationalizing about it later.  Their pedigree and PhD creates a field of excellent and  superior brainwaves around them that the more junior people can’t help but pick up and be influenced by even when the senior person has done little to nothing on the project.  Sort of like Lady Catherine DeBourgh in Pride and Prejudice who credits herself with a sensitive prodigy’s talent in music and would have been a great musician had she only learned to play.  Or the rationalizer’s work/family circumstances are more important than the person’s who actually did the work.  Or the rationalizer needs a green card.  Or <fill in the blank>.

If you have the power to steal a colleague’s work, the reasons for doing so aren’t hard to conjure up.  It’s your word against theirs.  With the patent lawyers sitting on publications and project data for so long, it’s easy to slap your name on a paper or patent when the actual inventor is out of the way.  All the skullduggery and credit stealing happens before the paper ever hits the journal or patent office.  Who’s going to know?  I’ve even heard that in some companies and departments credit is awarded to favorite underlings like a reward for loyalty.   Those favorites can swoop down on a project in its final stages and hog all of the years of credit to themselves at the last minute.  You’d think this would be an ethical problem requiring accountability and punishment. Not so.  It’s just the way things are done.  Not all companies operate this way but the current layoff environment makes it more common and brazen.  Yep, research is a sick business.

Well, it will all sort itself out in the end and the researchers who are left can always go into sales if they are ever exposed.

Science is baaaaaad  for you, children, Very bad.  You’ll spend years working and studying on project for which you will get no credit and end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Run away! Run Away!

*************************************

Susie Madrak cites a post today about how 3 female regulators’ warnings about the impending financial crisis were ignored.

Bies was a central bank board member from 2001 to 2007. Several times in the transcripts she said she was worried about the housing bubble.

Bies warned fellow board members that exotic mortgages — for instance, negative amortization loans in which balances become bigger and not smaller over time — were too dangerous for consumers.

She warned about the Wall Street-created securities backed by risky mortgages.

“I just wonder about the consumer’s ability to absorb shocks,” she said at Fed meeting in May 2006.

“The growing ingenuity in the mortgage sector is making me more nervous as we go forward in this cycle, rather than comforted that we have learned a lesson. Some of the models the banks are using clearly were built in times of falling interest rates and rising housing prices. It is not clear what may happen when either of those trends turns around.”

Later in 2006 she told Fed board members: “A lot of the private mortgages that have been securitized during the past few years really do have much more at risk than investors have been focusing on.”

Bies is an economist and was a former Tennessee banker. But the two most powerful men at the Fed and the Fed staff dismissed her concerns.

That May meeting was Ben Bernanke’s second as chairman of the Fed. He said the cooling off of the housing market was a “healthy thing.” And that “so far, we are seeing, at worst, an orderly decline in the housing market.”

In June 2006, Tim Geithner, then president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, said that “we see a pretty healthy adjustment process under way. … The world economy still looks pretty robust to us.”

A Fed staff report said: “We have not seen — and don’t expect — a broad deterioration in mortgage credit quality.”

Tim Geithner, Tim Geithner… Where have I heard that name before?  No, no don’t tell me.  Let me work this out…

Tol’ja

White House vs Women: Joe Biden Does it Wrong

Obama and Women: Two views

Um, I’m glad that the rest of the blogosphere is starting to pay attention to the way womens’ expertise is ignored in the public sphere and especially by the Democratic White House and party in general.  We here at The Confluence have been covering this very thing for a couple of years now, including one post that cited the story about the female musicians who get orchestra seats after they’ve auditioned behind a screen.   Wow, that’s an old reference.  You’d have to look long and hard to find it, unless someone already found it for you in other posts, like:

The Gender Gap and Female Bodied People

Yeah, why *did* we do that?

WTF?? Another example of how Sexism costs us all

Bairly Downgrading the FDIC

There are many more on the topic.  Try keywords “Sexism Costs” or “Costs of Sexism”.  Well, it’s not like it’s plagiarism or anything.

Unless someone is going to say they invented the Plum Line Metric too.  (that would be here, and here as well) Then I will have to raise a snit.

Welcome Susie!  We will send out our complimentary new members package complete with white sheet (‘cos an accusation of racism is just around the corner) and you starter pack of hormone replacement therapy.   No, no, don’t thank us.  Most members don’t.

Wednesday: Brain drain?

This article from the NYTimes should get some attention.  It’s about an awards program from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The awards are given to foreign born scientists who study here in the US and then return to their home countries.  The nation with the highest number of recipients this year?  China.:

China’s government has thrown billions in recent years into building a top-notch research establishment, hoping to keep its best scientists working here and lure back those who are abroad.

Now comes a hint that that effort is beginning to pay off.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious research foundations, announced Tuesday that it washonoring 28 biomedical researchers who studied in the United States and then returned to their home nations. Each will receive a five-year research grant of $650,000.

Seven — more than any other nation — are from China.

“They’re incredibly energetic, extremely smart, highly productive and accomplished,” Robert Tjian, president of the institute, said of the Chinese winners in a telephone interview. The 28 are receiving the institute’s first International Early Career Scientist awards.

This comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked with Chinese scientists.  The cream of the crop came to study here in the last couple of decades and while some of those scientists are simply good, some are really top notch.  This is probably the case with every country’s academic superstars but China has been ferocious about developing their talent.

But here’s where the changes in our American culture are going to bite us in the ass.  It used to be that when Chinese scientists came here, they were reluctant to return home.  Not any more.  And it’s not homesickness that is driving them.  It’s all related to how the money has dried up in research here in the US:

“Young people go where they can flourish the best,” he said. “And those countries have been able to attract young scientists trained in the U.S. to go back.”

“That’s a big hurdle. It used to be that people thought people came here and never went back. But I think now that is starting to change.”

Some of the award winners agreed. “I think it’s very obvious in recent years, and we’re very happy to see that,” Wang Xiaochen, a former doctoral student at the University of Colorado who is now at Beijing’s National Institute of Biological Sciences.

While many if not most Chinese doctoral students who choose to remain in the United States after their studies, she said, in China, “I don’t have to apply for a grant,” while in the United States “the funding situation already is very tough.

I think I’d have opportunities, but I’d have to spend a lot of time applying for funding. Here, I don’t have to apply for my own funding. So it’s an easy decision for me,” she said.

This is the common complaint I am hearing.  There’s very little grant money and what there is takes a lot of tedious, time wasting paperwork to acquire.  And then there’s the political aspect of getting grant money.  I would wager to guess that most scientists are not particularly good at the kind of salesmanship that is required to constantly beg for money.  And that’s a problem if you have an area of research that doesn’t respond well to interruptions and postponements.

But it’s not just the academic/government grant area that is suffering.  Small start up biotechs are frequently faced with some stark choices.  Take the example of Alnylam that Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline posted about last week:

The news is that Alnylam, the RNAi company just down the street from where I’m writing, is cutting about a third of its workforce to try to get its best prospects through the clinic. This is a familiar story in the small-pharma world; there’s often money to try to get things through the clinic, or to pay everyone in the earlier-stage R&D – but nowhere near enough money to do both. There are companies that have gone through this stage several times, sometimes rehiring the same people when the money began flowing again.

So, you can have early stage research or clinical trials.  But you can’t have both.  This is really dangerous for Alnylam because if their best prospects get crushed in clinical trials, and this happens a lot, they won’t have much to fall back on because they’ve had to cut back on their R&D staff.  This is just an example of what small biotechs are facing all over the country.  The result is that scientists bounce from job to job, coast to coast.  The pay is not as good as it used to be, benefits are skimpier and when the money runs out in a year or so, you have to find a new job.  Where are you supposed to live?  Can you afford a family if you are living a precariat existence?  And what’s going to happen when you are required to pay health insurance premiums to private insurance companies without any attempt at cost control?  The costs to the individual researcher is going to continue to rise with no stability in their work or domestic life. Is this any way to treat people who take the toughest majors in college?

Once again, I have to caution politicians and CEOs who think this is a good way to run research.  It’s extremely counterproductive.  Research frequently requires long periods of continuous study and work.  There are high start up costs associated with equipment and reagents.  Biotech is not like Silicon Valley because microchips follow predictable physical laws.  Cells do not.  It’s great for China that it’s starting to invest heavily in it’s scientists but it’s still going to take that country many years to figure out how to crank out new discoveries that will pass the FDA’s rigorous safety standards.  It’s hard, hard work even for the brilliant.  And then there are the scientists who did not graduate from prestigious universities.  With the number of discoveries we are making in biology these days, there is more than enough work for all of us but without money, those of us with the ability and inspiration but not the opportunities are wasted.  You never know when one of your well trained staff is going to notice something or makes that extra compound that makes a billion dollars a year.  It happens all of the time and it doesn’t take a Harvard educated PhD to do it.  It does take a place to work, money to pay the bills and sufficient time to run the experiments.

If we don’t start putting money into this country’s scientific human infrastructure, it’s going to be gone.  And don’t anyone buy that crock of BS about companies that want to hire high tech but can’t find educated personnel.  There are about 100,000 of us sitting on our asses right now who can’t get employers to hire us.  As one former colleague said, “They want someone right out of school with 25 years of experience.”  In other words, the MBAs seem to think this is so easy that anyone can do it.  It’s merely a series of tasks that can be pharmed out to any sufficiently trained research labtech at a CRO, right?  Sort of like ordering parts for a car.  They couldn’t be more wrong.

So far, the only barrier to having full employment of scientists is that companies want to sit on their cash in the hopes of driving wages down and that government is being incredibly stingy.  You can’t make a life on $37K a year after spending most of your adult life studying.  And some of these companies are creating their own finance problems by locating themselves in the most expensive places in the country to work and live.  But there’s no getting around the fact that research is expensive no matter where you do it and that it takes a long time and investment in people for it to pay off.  Pay us or lose us.

Wednesday: Ignorance and Want

While my fellow unemployed colleagues in the research and development industry sit on top of our degrees, publications and patents, waiting to see if the Republicans and Obama will stop playing a game of political chicken with our unemployment checks so we can, oh, I don’t know, fill our crack pipes and watch cable on our flat screen TVs while we replace our spring houses and root cellars with a brand new french door refrigerators (True, I *did* buy one last summer, but only because I thought it would be a good idea to update the appliances in case I had to sell my house), I ran across this in a post from Paul Krugman about the plutocrats:

One of the disadvantages of being very wealthy may be that you end up surrounded by sycophants, who will never, ever tell you what a fool you’re making of yourself. That’s the only way I can make sense of the farcical behavior of the wealthy described in this new report from Max Abelson:

“Cooperman, 68, said in an interview that he can’t walk through the dining room of St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, Florida, without being thanked for speaking up. At least four people expressed their gratitude on Dec. 5 while he was eating an egg-white omelet, he said.

“You’ll get more out of me,” the billionaire said, “if you treat me with respect.””

and this blurb at Corrente from some supernatural being called a “job creator”:

“It’s simply a fact [by which we mean, “completely an ideological construct”] that pretty much all the private- sector jobs in America are created by the decisions of ‘the 1 percent’ to hire and invest,” [Robert Rosenkranz, CEO of Wilmington, Delaware-based Delphi Financial Group Inc.], 69, said in an e- mail. “Since their confidence in the future more than any other factor will drive those decisions, it makes little sense to undermine their confidence by vilifying them.”

It’s such a relief to me that none of them are worried about getting sick with cancer. You don’t know what a burden has been lifted from my mind to know that having obscene gobs of money guarantees immortality.

Because I spent the summer of 2010 in the lab producing a cancer protein. Never done it before. In order to make me a more attractive employee to the job creators who ran my company so they wouldn’t sever me from my livelihood, I decided to go back into the lab after 20 years and learn molecular biology and crystallography. It was hard, let me tell you, not that I didn’t enjoy it. I had to learn how to pipette 2 µL drops onto a cover slip and then pipette 2 µL smack down on top of them and make them perfectly spherical. I had to learn to ferment ecoli. I had to learn how to culture insect cells. I had to learn how to purify protein and then choose the correct conditions for crystallizing it. Then I had to fish fragile microscopic crystals out of those 2 µL drops with an equally microscopic nylon loop and freeze them so that they could be diffracted at a synchrotron. Then I had to learn how to place amino acids into the electron density of the data that came back so I could construct a model of that protein. I learned all of that in a matter of a few months. Then, just for fun, I started to design drugs for that protein.

My lab partner and I did this on a protein for oncology that had not been reported in the crystallographic literature. This was a protein that our company had tried to outsource to a company in China but they had no success in producing or crystallizing it in over a year of having the contract. My lab partner ordered the constructs and we did the whole thing start to finish, gene to structure, in 5 months. In many aspects of the project, she was as much a novice as I was. We did this on top of the work we were already assigned for other proteins. The structure that we solved was being used before I left to design drugs to combat a serious cancer for which there is no cure.

And it was some job creator’s bright idea to lay both of us off in January of 2011. We were 2 of 90 at our site who lost our jobs that day, and only 2 of over 100,000 research professionals who have lost our jobs since 2007.

The 1% are not like you and me. They’re different. They have a very strange definition of success. And they need confidence before they make hiring decisions. So I can only assume that the finance and investment class people who decided that I and my lab partner were too expensive to keep on the books, are confident that in the future they will need fewer discoveries, like the structural elucidation of cancer proteins from a crack team of two who with dedication and hard work churned out in 5 months what couldn’t be outsourced in 18.

Keep them in your thoughts this Christmas Season. This is their success and these their creatures:

Ignorance and Want

“‘Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,’ said
Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe,’ but I see
something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding
from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw.’ ‘It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,’ was
the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. ‘Look here.’From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children;
wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt
down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.‘Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where
graceful youth should have filled their features out, and
touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled
hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No
change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any
grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has
monsters half so horrible and dread.Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him
in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but
the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie
of such enormous magnitude.‘Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out
its hand towards the city. ‘Slander those who tell it ye.
Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.
And abide the end.’ ‘Have they no refuge or resource.’ cried Scrooge.‘Are there no prisons.’ said the Spirit, turning on him
for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.'”– A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits