Friday, May 13, 2016

Goofy idea of the morning: oral histories of senior antibiotics scientists

This morning's In the Pipeline post is on a new Pew roadmap for antibiotic discovery, and there was this passage in the Pew report which will be familiar to any readers of the blog:
There is growing concern that as industry teams are downsized or shuttered, antibiotic scientists have moved to other firms, shifted to different biomedical areas, or retired, leading to the loss of valuable institutional knowledge and expertise. Antibiotic discovery has a long history, but much of the published research is buried in old journal issues or out-of-print books, and other research never makes it to publication. Organizing this body of research and making it accessible to the scientists who need it is critical for advancing discovery. Valuable knowledge may include compilations of screens that have been run before and information on past research programs. While much of this information is publicly available, what may be most useful is an account of what projects failed, and why.
If we deployed 5 or so scientists to go and interview the men and women who worked in antibiotic drug discovery over the last 20 or 30 years, and get them to tell about their projects and what worked and what didn't, I think it may uncover some important insights for the future.

Like any good Gen Xer, I could fill many pages of blog comments about the faults of the Baby Boomers. That said, they are probably the most scientifically advanced and technically knowledgeable generation in the history of humankind. Knowledge that hasn't been published or written down somewhere about antibiotic medicinal chemistry is, over the long run, likely worth the ~$10 million bucks it would be to get a couple of smart people to get them to talk about their scientific stories.

11 comments:

  1. "If you don't write it down, it never happened." seems to have been revised in boardrooms to "If you don't write it down, you didn't spend money on it." I guess the people running pharma must be assuming they'll never get sick. The idea that something might be useful in the future does not appear to be relevant to them - their paychecks depend on money now, and all else is forfeit. I don't understand how short-term thinking in long-term businesses can end well. Maybe I'll live to find out.

    You'd probably want people who worked in antibiotics to do the interviewing; they would probably have an idea what to ask, though they would also have non-explicit assumptions and knowledge that you'd have to get at first. Tacit knowledge is a PITA.

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    1. If you don't write it down you can't get sued for it.

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    2. But you can't make money from it, either.

      In any case, based on the rep pharma has given itself lately, my guess is that people on a jury will assume the worst of it in the absence of affirmative or exculpatory evidence; if that were true, having written information would be helpful, not harmful. Maybe the appeals judges won't think that way, though.

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  2. I would say we need oral histories of pharmaceutical scientists in general.

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  3. This is a huge problem at my company too. We're coating/casting resin formulators, not synthesis chemists, which makes preserving tribal knowledge more even more important since the information we need isn't in the open literature. Since my company acquired many small formulators over the years, the original lab reports behind many of our products were lost when whoever closed down acquired sites just chucked everything in the trash. I get frustrated when I have to solve a problem with a product and all I have is the recipe and not much else.
    One example - our corporate parent decided to merge another division with mine. The other division is also a coatings maker, but the chemistry and applications were completely different from ours. They flew my manager out there to spend a few days learning as much as he could before they shut the place down and fired all the chemists. We ended up losing most of the customers from that division once it became clear that we were just cranking out recipes we didn't understand.

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    1. Wow. Where'd your company recruit management from, Box O'Rocks, Inc.? I would have figured that they would have had the time and ability to figure out if the recipes could be reproduced and what their customers would do, but I guess not. Denominator management wins again!

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    2. You'd think that anyone who went through that kind of layoff is put off cooperating with oral history projects for the rest of his life. Especially when potentially valuable IP is involved.

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    3. Anon 3:48 here again.

      Hap - We can reproduce the processes easily enough, as we did keep a plant from the merged division, just not any chemists. Our bean counters think chemists are interchangeable widgets. They just saw a reduction in headcount on their spreadsheets, and the fact that all of the people who knew product line X are gone never occurred to them. To top it off, we've had a revolving door of upper managers the last few years, and my manager's current boss thinks he's incompetent for not understanding the entire product line. It took me several years to understand the intricacies of our product histories, application areas, and chemistries, so my manager didn't stand a chance trying to do the same thing with the new division in a couple of days.

      As for the 10:01 comment, the chemists who were about to lose their jobs did the absolute minimum to answer questions without volunteering information. There were a lot of subtle details that we either learned the hard way or still don't know to this day.

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    4. maybe you can re-hire the laid of chemists with the knowledge of the process as consultant, at five times their original paycheck

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  4. I think the government of the PRC will be willing to staff and fund this project. I suspect the report will be delayed.

    CJ, you can blame us Boomers for your problems but you will be getting the same from Gens Y & Z. I'm sorry if I failed to do things that could have made today's conditions better. And please, GET OFF OF MY LAWN!

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  5. This sounds worthwhile, but don't kid yourselves, this will only save a fraction of the knowledge that these people have. Conserving such experientially derived knowledge requires yes of mentoring of junior colleagues to achieve. It is something that the market completely fails to acknowledge as it is just an assumption that this knowledge will always be available somewhere if you have enough money to pay for it.

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