I came across this Andy Grove interview in Newsweek in which he is complaining bitterly about the pharmaceutical industry. The piece begins with the statement that during the time that former CEO Grove spent at Intel, “the number of transistors on a chip went from about 1,000 to almost 10 billion.” And I thought to myself: Uh-oh. You don’t suppose he’s going to compare semiconductor manufacture to the molecular biology of pharmaceuticals?
Yes he is. It happens that he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he’s baffled and angered that no new therapies have been launched in the last ten years. He goes on from there to point out the many ways that the drug industry is stupider than the chip industry. All that’s missing is a man-on-the-moon quote, as in: “This country can put a man on the moon, but gosh darn it, we still can’t cure genital herpes” etc. etc. What we need is more managerial kick-ass and less regulatory kiss-ass. And so on.
One of the nice things about living in the Age of Blogs is that I immediately knew that bio-pharma insider Derek Lowe, over at In the Pipeline, would have something fun to say about this. He did: Andy Grove: Rich, Famous, Smart and Wrong. Lowe embellishes the obvious. Grove is being manifestly unfair for a variety of reasons. Pentium bugs, for example, are embarrassing but not lethal. Nevertheless, there is something useful in having an outsider beat up your industry. At the very least it prevents you from being complacent. And I happen to think that in the last paragraph of the Newsweek piece, Grove hits on an important point that Lowe chooses not to rebut:
The peer review system in grant making and in academic advancement has the major disadvantage of creating conformity of thoughts and values. It’s a modern equivalent of a Middle Ages guild, where you have to sing a particular way to get grants, promotions and tenure.
Some of the comments on Lowe’s blog pick up on this, but most just pile on the anti-Grove bandwagon (see the Newsweeks comments for a remarkable contrast). Clearly Grove has touched a nerve, but the fact that this discussion is happening at all indicates something fun is happening. Like it or not, pharmaceutical research is being dragged out into the sunlight. The public, including former CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, has some foolish misconceptions to get past. But they’ll also bring some fresh air with them.