Sunday, 18 October 2009

Professor Zombie

Scientists are very very smart people: everybody knows that one.

Accordionists are very very stupid people: everybody knows that one.

Scientists unlock the doors of the universe and thereafter locate, identify, and learn to pull the levers of reality with results that lead to humanity’s increased welfare and comfort.

Accordionists cram live tomcats’ wedding tackle into iron maiden bellows and squeeze them for fun.

Scientists have developed the knowledge upon which engineers invented such life-enhancing products as penicillin, the electric can-opener, a huge range of exciting new pesticides, Zyklon B (from pesticide research), the underwired brassiere and a truly spectacular technique to make the Japanese Imperial Navy turn tail for its remaining home ports, just in time to transform its home country into a gigantic Radio Shack.

Accordionists bash out the polka and sea shanties, and almost no-one hits them until they stop and promise to never do it again.

As far as I’m aware however, no accordionist has ever suggested doing to the latter-day makers of penicillin and pesticides something like what the Bolsheviks did to the breadbasket of Russia, with hilarious results.

This is from The New Scientist.

read and wonder as Professor Martin chases words around his page trying to find a sentence that isn’t a non-sequitur in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

Big banks, big pharma, big problems

12 October 2009 by John Martin

MONEY has thrown society out of kilter. Banks that once appeared to have mountains of cash have collapsed. As a consequence of the global recession, governments now recognise that banking is too important to be left to the bankers. States have taken action, from wresting control of financial institutions to introducing new regulations.

He doesn’t seem to recognize that it was the US Federal Government and Her Majesty’s Government that encouraged all kinds of banking skullduggery – and indeed positively encouraged it in the Sub Prime and UK self-certifying mortgages scandals. But perhaps the good professor is out of his specialism.

I believe the financial meltdown has implications for pharmaceutical research. The running of large pharmaceutical companies carries a social responsibility that is as heavy as running any bank. Recently, however, this unwritten contract between society and drug companies has not been fulfilled.

Is it like the famous unwritten contract between awesomely cute single women and hopelessly duff mouth-breathing and solitary males, I wonder? C’mon, our need is so bad, sweetie.

Is our health now too important to be left to big pharma?

Is our science now too important to be left to big brains?

To illustrate my concerns, let's look at the treatment of heart disease. Many important cardiovascular drugs have been invented: statins, ACE inhibitors, beta blockers, fibrinolytics.

Invented – by drug companies, I think, undertaking or sponsoring research with some of the income from previous sales of their own drugs. Which would not all have occurred - or been so well funded - if that money had gone to support purely academic science.

But in the last 10 years, few of significance have emerged, even though the pharmaceutical industry has spent unprecedented amounts of money on research and development: in each year of that decade, Pfizer spent about $6 billion, Eli Lilly $3bn, and GlaxoSmithKline $2.5bn.

Perhaps there are limits to how fast you can find out the secrets of the universe? And I don’t suppose that these companies are spending it on crystal healing and elf studies at all. There might be a profit motive somewhere. There was in all the other developments. One wonders how that clean, cheap and sustainable non-nuclear energy’s coming along from our beloved and impartial physicists and engineers?

This splurge is reminiscent of how banks misused their funds before their collapse, but the industry has been insulated from the recent economic changes and has accumulated vast cash piles from the sales of medicines,…

I wonder what this chump thinks that big Pharma does with its money? Does its board get it all out of the bank in cash and fill swimming pools with it and go hundred dollar bill surfing?

And the government has not told them to give their cash or drugs to people unable to use them wisely – unlike the social engineering of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and all those canny, unqualified Scotsmen and what I shall delicately call ‘Scotsmen Impersonators’ in Labour’s Banking Clans. It seems that it hasn’t occurred to Doc Martin that governments’ decisions about what ought to be done with their nations’ savings didn’t turn out too well.

But Socialists are always sporting: their motto could almost be “Bad luck old boy, but better luck next time.”

…(in the UK, mostly through sales to the National Health Service).

See that elephant over there? That one: the one called destroying private medicine almost everywhere that it’s found and thus creating a State-enforced near-monopsony? That’s what happens when governments decide to crush free enterprise and provide everything in a particular industry themselves. And this muppet wants to give the State more of the proceeds of success to the very people who haven’t cured the common cold yet?

Or are some scientific searches hard slog or even downright impossible? Now, if we had more customers – say a varied ownership health service with lots of private clinics and hospitals, perhaps whatever it is that Professor Martin is unhappy about would be diluted or go away.

On average, each top-20 pharmaceutical company has access to about $7.5bn in cash.

Could the cash piles of big pharma be mobilised in a more efficient way for the public good? Two years ago such a suggestion would have been scorned. Now, however, it should be considered. As was the case with the banking sector, I believe that there is a real risk that the big pharma industry might collapse.

A lot of evidence would be a good idea. Some evidence anyway. Any evidence at all even, really.

What is the smallest unit of evidence anyway: the Fact? The Factoid? The Martin?

I believe that there is a real risk that the big pharma industry might collapse.

Increasing spending on R&D cannot be continued indefinitely with such meagre progress. If a collapse of the pharmaceutical industry does occur it might not be for decades, but one of the biggest lessons of the banking collapse is that no one can predict economic forces with much certainty. The fall of big pharma could be imminent.

So to sum this latest argument up: cash-rich big pharma might collapse; it could be decades; but we now know that no-one can predict economic forces with much certainty. Therefore, the only scientific conclusion to draw from this seemingly random string of opinions is to believe that big pharma might collapse. Possibly. Maybe in decades. Certainly unpredictably.

Let’s try that again shall we?

But this time let’s use the whole chicken.

The sky might fall; it might be decades until it does; no-one can predict celestial descents with any certainty, and so the sky falling could be imminent.

If this man is ever involved with the science that leads to a new air traffic control system, paint me blue and call me a pedestrian. If he got into improving the science of prophylactic engines, I suggest that they might be marketed accurately as Daddy’s Economy Condoms.

There is another way to fund the development of new treatments. Many innovative ideas that have changed society have arisen from the combination of curiosity and academic freedom found in universities. This is where small amounts of funding can produce big results. In recent years, university research has been exploited by industry to produce new drugs, such as blood clot-busting "tissue plasminogen activator", courtesy of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL) in Belgium.

So the academics freely did their thing in academic freedom and then somebody else poured money into the results to the benefit of the human race. They probably employed or sponsored the original scientists for product development, too. But even if they didn’t, the eggheads came up with a discovery that somebody already rich from previous production could afford to finance right onto the dispensers’ shelves. Now that’s just plain crazy.

Now, while big pharma has so much money it doesn't know what to do with it…,

I thought they’re doing fruitless research? I wonder what Bluebottle thinks they’re spending it on? Worse products that nobody, professional or retail, will want to use? Drugs that make people poorly? Drugs that force innocent New Scientist readers turn to the Economist or just walk across the campus to the economics department where most of the peer-reviewed professionals will say something like ‘Hands off the drug companies because free enterprise works and government intervention got us British Leyland and also conned the DeLorean Motor Company to build its cars in troubles-era Northern Ireland.’

…universities are being starved of resources and research funding has decreased in real terms. At the same time, university research strategy is under-organised and there is ignorance of how to exploit intellectual property and utilise patents. Nevertheless, the potential of universities is enormous.

Clearly, what we need here is some kind of research co-ordinating body.

Sadly, because of intense competition for limited funds, academic scientists are now driven to perform predictable low-risk science in small packets that will give quick results in time for the next grant application.

But I thought that the drug companies sitting idly on their well-earned stash was wasteful and fruitless and therefore, surely, small, under-funded outfits getting quick results is the opposite of what Martin so dislikes…

The end result is that we have a plethora of small groups with strong leaders that act independently, fragmenting effort. At the same time, little translational research is being performed, even though politicians pay endless lip service to the idea.

So on one hand we have an unproductive big pharma which is cash rich…,

Rich because its former research funding and production of drugs that people buy in the bucketload and keep on buying. Curing millions along the way, which we old-fashioned conservative types regard as a good thing. That’s some ‘unproductive’ industry you’ve got there, Prof. Perhaps they’ll try and do it again to get some more? Wouldn’t that be nice?

… and on the other a cash-poor university system that has produced fistfuls of Nobel prizewinners. The way forward is obvious: inject the money into university research.

‘Give me the money – I can spend it more wisely than the millions of customers who’ve stupidly given it to these bloated plutocrats because of their silly idea that when you’re ill, you go to the chaps with the cure, instead of the chaps with the big ideas and the mortar-boards.’

Experience tells us this can have major benefits. One of the most successful initiatives in the last decade has been the spin-out of small biotech firms. My own, Ark Therapeutics, emerged from University College London and is now a public company with three phase-III clinical trials under way.

And what would you say if you reach annual post-tax profits of £5,000,000 or something we take some of it from you and give it to the competition just in case their better flypaper or deodorant is a good idea? I mean, if you make a profit just because people eventually buy your stuff, it doesn’t mean that you’re anything more than a cash-rich pharmaceutical company yourself, does it? How high shall we set the ceiling before your company’s earning are somehow siphoned of to the drones who failed to make the grade or to Spotty McBadbreath; perpetual virgin and researcher into the healing properties of lemmings?

Similarly, Biogen sprang from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Genentech from the University of California, San Francisco.

Now is the time for government action. Big pharma is international, so measures would ideally have to be taken by the European Commission at the pan-European level, by the federal government in the US or as a joint initiative.

Hands across the Pond and straight into the pockets of the companies whose drugs and antibiotics and machine-that-goes-ping! and suchlike saved the life of my wife and daughter during childbirth, and hand it over instead to the State medical bureaucrats who almost let them die by not reading the mother-to-be’s health records.

Nationalisation, or internationalisation, of the $150bn cash mountain of the top 20 companies is probably unthinkable. However, the tax system could at least encourage pharma to invest more wisely.

Yeah – their shareholders go to lunch at the Annual General Meeting when the Board goes through the accounts, and so they don’t hear this: This is the monorail we bought, and this is the string of racing alpacas, and this it our tortoise ranch. Odd that such a smart scientist has exactly zero cluefulness regarding how the profit motive forces all responsible to check and assess every bit of expenditure to maximize takings and reduce costs.

In the UK, for example, immediate funding could be generated for university research if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were to extend R&D relief for corporation tax to big pharma.

The voluntary principle? Encouraging companies to fund university research by tax breaks? Sounds good. What’s the catch? It turns out that he doesn’t hate Big Pharma at all: he wants to get into bed with it. And just who is going to be screwed as a result? Well, I guess the non-recipients of whatever the government was going to spend that tax income on before they favoured the universities’ pet projects. Which soldiers won’t be getting helicopters after Professor Martin’s idea becomes law? Which schools and hospitals will lose funding because Professor Martin and his ilk have been generously funded to hunt the snark, the quark, and the sustainable election?

But more money is not enough. The universities themselves would have to become more businesslike about how to achieve commercial goals - such as creating a new drug - while preserving their academic freedom.

Gone are the cries of the Left that universities should keep aloof from vulgar trade as pinko academe did in my Thatcherite youth. Either her ideas have stuck here and there in certain minds - present company included (and I think that they have in a lot of places), or someone’s in business and looking for financial help without raising money on the stock market, or from venture capitalists through commercial loans and overdraughts.

I must look up academic freedom in the New Scientist Dictionary of Very Hard Words Indeed the next time some Israeli academic is refused a place at a conference. Also, just which academics really do believe that, if you’re commissioned to build a better mousetrap, your paymasters will insist you deny evolution or global warming, or the benefits of child-centred education or structuralism? Or that, if the paymaster is in fact the government, you won’t be expected to produce pro-government science – like all that global warming stuff in a world that’s growing colder?

Control must not be allowed to follow the cash, though, or the creative ethos of the university may be stifled.

Give us the money and butt out – we’ll get back to you if we want more.

Actually, not a bad idea if it is: Here’s the cash, and don’t call us until you’ve made that mousetrap. And if you don’t, then don’t call us ever.

The involvement of small spin-off biotech companies could be a condition of receiving such funding, generating jobs. One hundred new companies could be created from British universities alone over 10 years if big pharma money were blended with a proactive way of recognising patentable inventions and managing university science.

One hundred really good beach parties could be created this year by blending university academics’ wages with wholesale vintners, a deep-freeze food supermarket and some West Country seaside resorts.

I’ll bring the boom-box if you like.

The credit crunch has been a vivid reminder of the responsibility that comes with cash.

And we are reminded of the responsibility that comes with the great happiness that women who possess beauty have so much of and which obliges them to put out for geeks and plaque-deniers. From each according to her cuteness to each according to his trousers.

Now is the time to rethink how research can be efficiently harnessed for the good of society.

Unlike those surf n’ sausages bashes that Johnson & Johnson keep throwing for the board and accounts department of GlaxoSmithKline.

I can go into Boots or Superdrug or other pharmacies and get many useful preparations for most common maladies cheaply and reliably. I’d hate for those prices or that quality to be compromised by sticky-fingered eggheads who want a slice of a pie they never baked. One wonders how the professor would fare in national programme of the redistribution of brains.

John Martin is professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London and founder of Ark Therapeutics

This man is ideologically a looter: pure and simple.

He shows no understanding of how wealth is created in the first place, or any concern about whether existing inventors or developers of drugs should stay solvent. He shows no curiosity in, or sign of understanding about, what might motivate private capital to move into pharmacy if their few successes (there are many failures in research) will be punished by law to finance perpetual motion research or whatever whacky stuff the government decided was more desirable, or hopeful, or politically expedient. Profit-seeking drugs companies want to sell truckloads of new stuff because new stuff will help doctors save more lives and doctors like that and will pay up if they can. Companies like money. His proposal is modest: punish success to finance speculation or possibly ideas that have already failed.

Just how many Concordes or British Leylands or other white elephants can this country afford?

So he’s a Red; wrong and a Leftie and outside the little circle of flickering, demented firelight that we call Left-wing reality. Big deal.

Is there a lesson to be learned from my series of variably amusing truisms aimed at an illogical point of view?

Actually, I think that there is. This is a culture wars issue at heart. The Prof’s problem isn’t that he’s a bad scientist or a dishonest academic, because it seems clear that he is not. He’s just incapable of seeing the cultural nature of successful capitalists as anything other than wasteful hoarders of wealth. He believes that he is wiser than all their investors and customers and in-house scientists are.

And this is the clincher for me:

The end result is that we have a plethora of small groups with strong leaders that act independently, fragmenting effort.

Liberal to English translation: freedom and competition are bad. We need to centralize all research planning. Like this, again.

You could show this person nice and accurate histories of so many pharmaceutical companies that bootstrapped themselves up from a good idea carefully exploited to international fame, and he’d still believe that taking a little off the top would make the world a better place. Something that’s already big and isn’t his property is bad – and he needs a bit of it so the little guys get a chance at a little success.

Now is the time to rethink how research can be efficiently harnessed for the good of society.

I’m part of society. I like cheap, plentiful, effective drugs and medical supplies. The market has harnessed research to my benefit all my life. If the big boys want still more cash then they can jolly well invent some more medical gear. And let’s face it: what person of the Professor’s mind-set or mine believes that big companies aren’t greedy?

This is a stark reminder why scientific research must never, ever be monopolized by the government.

Believe only us. Do what you’re told. Take what you’re given. Listen to the nice accordion music. Breathe deeply.


James Higham said...

Wonderfully thought out, as usual and put together in that quirky way.

This man is ideologically a looter: pure and simple.

He shows no understanding of how wealth is created in the first place, or any concern about whether existing inventors or developers of drugs should stay solvent.

This is the type of thing we are curently afflicted with.

Mark Wadsworth said...

That post was a bit lengthy, but you are right that people like this are a menace to society.

Here's another fine contradiction:

The involvement of small spin-off biotech companies could be a condition of receiving such funding, generating jobs. One hundred new companies could be created from British universities alone over 10 years...

So he think lots of small companies is a good thing, it seems. Oh, hang on...

The end result is that we have a plethora of small groups with strong leaders that act independently, fragmenting effort.

So he thinks it's a bad thing, then?

North Northwester said...

James, thank you - I was outraged at this man's self-contradictory reflex Leftism. I should point out that he might be a fine and successful businessman.
As Mark points out, I probably did overdo it on the word-count: sometimes I place 'style' over succinctness. Mea maxima culpa.

I think that between us we nailed his contradictions though.

James Higham said...

Had to smile at Mark's comment here - that post was a bit lengthy. How long is a piece of string?

GCooper said...

Would someone please remind me how many world-class medications were developed in that paradise of the planned economy, East Germany?

DJ said...

Of course, truly socially responsible government had a rather more direct effect on the success of Soviet agriculture:

Hey, anyone want to bet what's had more exposure in the pages of the 'New Scientist' recently? The role of Lysenkoism in screwing up the USSR more than mere collectivism could, or Sarah Palin's mythical creationism?


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