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Our Unholy Alliance

Technology collides with human behavior. That’s where the action is – either phenomenon alone is prosaic, which is why biotechnology and its motley relatives are so fascinating and – let’s face it – the only game in town. Of course, the ancient art of brewing was the first really useful biotech application in commerce. But since the advent of beer, the business of science has really only accelerated in the last 40 years or so…

A pharmaceutical company, in conjunction with its partners, manipulates large clinical trial data to deliberately mislead the authorities. It’s a misguided attempt to gain approval for a drug that cannot succeed – “cooking the books” in accountant vernacular. Directors of institutes in Tokyo and the National Institutes of Health commit suicide in response to one of their staff attempting fraud.


Are these events related? Do commercial concerns and academic goals drive otherwise discerning adults over ethical boundaries? Certainly. But every day, all day, all over the world, scientific and commercial transactions of all kinds occur ethically and fairly (subjective though those terms are). Both the business and scientific communities are remarkably hard on unethical behavior. And rightly so, but let us not pretend that we don’t understand the pressures.

Why don’t you get a job?

I grew up with biotechnology – that is to say, I grew up as biotechnology grew up. In the late 70s, when biotech started to “work” (showing potential in actual applications), I got a job. I moved from a protracted academic “lifestyle” to employment in the lab. To be more specific, I was hired to further develop a single celled photosynthetic bacterial protein source for developing countries.

It was a morally unassailable position that I didn’t hesitate to boast about to my reprobate college friends – all for a whopping $10,500 Canadian a year (twice the “$100 a week” my father would have described as a good salary 15 years earlier). Fifteen years later, in the intoxicating world of senior management in the life sciences, that salary seems like a rounding error…My first “real” job was classic “micro”, and a couple of grants later, it would be early “molecular.” I was a player (albeit a peripheral one) amongst the fighter jet pilots of biotech: the gene jockeys. This was still in a totally academic environment, of course.

We redistilled our own phenol, worked daily with acrylamide, hydrazine, DFSO, ethidium bromide, P32 and I125. Toxic, carcinogenic, radioactive, corrosive, explosive: all part of the macho arrogance of molecular biology – the only field that mattered back then.

I learned to sequence DNA, to do restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis, to clone DNA in the days when these processes were opaque, inscrutable, finicky, dangerous, involved, and laborious. It was a time when restriction enzymes were still spoken of with awe. And, at maybe 200 bases a day, it would have taken me a tad over 41,000 years to sequence the human genome…We chewed and spat out inscrutable jargon, those who couldn’t follow were doomed to be passengers in the future we were creating. We spoke of the elegance of our experiments. We scoffed at immunology, micro, plant biology but especially medicine. Why struggle to save aging overweight humans? It was their own fault and it would never happen to us. We understood aging and mortality but assumed we were exempt. Business might as well have been astrology.

We would ask ourselves: who but the most intellectually challenged – the most lacking in resolve and imagination – would ever consider any type of corporate affiliation? To “prostitute oneself ” was the standard analogy. Yes, the impression among us at the time was that business people were amoral, insincere and unintelligent. It was acceptable for a scientist to simply not show up to an agreed upon rendezvous with one of the ubiquitous sales representatives that bravely sought our attention. We pitied them. We mocked them. They didn’t warrant our respect. And we were far too intelligent to be sold to.

The sales people we met had been apparently forced, due to a lack of intelligence, to be in the questionable, dark world of business. Mysteriously, we thought our pursuits purer, although there was certainly no mystery about the source of our funding: taxes from the very companies and people who were beneath us.

Isn’t it time you moved out?

When biotech “moved out of the house” into commerce in the 80s, I was caught up in the wave and went from being a molecular biology research assistant to a product manager for a biochemical company, selling to the same people I had previously worked with. My excolleagues recoiled in horror.

It turned out to be a subtle, judgmental world – one of shifting loyalties and difficult decisions. Constant dilemmas involved two positive alternatives or two negative alternatives. It was as disorienting as a concussion.

I had to learn to dress. In general, business people know how to dress; academics don’t, as it is too banal an issue to consider. I showed up on my first day in brown suede shoes and a blue suit that I had been obliged to purchase for my father’s funeral two years earlier. At the end of that seemingly relentless first day, my boss advised me to “lose the shoes”.

Business people (ideally) had emotional intelligence: they looked you in the eye, they shook your hand firmly. Scientists at the time did not make eye contact, if they could avoid it, and were unfamiliar with any physical contact – or so it seemed from their dead fish handshakes.

The affable back-slapping business mentality was sneered at and looked down upon by science people while business people saw scientists as socially inept, stylistically incompetent introverts who lived as perennial school children in clutter and relative poverty, just to avoid the responsibility of adulthood.

This clash of culture became very apparent to me when I returned to the lab, visiting as a product manager with the local sales representative. I was particularly struck by the disorder, squalor and generally unhealthy feel to the lab. And then there was the petty possessiveness; even pens had nametags on them and people were proud to have a phone to call their own.

Scientists dreamed of the apparently endless money the naïve business world would lavish on them – money that had been previously allotted unfairly to undeserving corporate drones.

When I first got the job, my new company called me in my old lab to ask if I preferred the bookcase or the credenza for my office. Office? I was stunned, I didn’t even know what a credenza was. And I’m still not entirely sure.

Emotional intelligence, while in short supply everywhere, is required to excel in business but, until more recently, relatively underemphasized in science, where a gruff, irritable reclusive attitude was seen as part of the aura. Intelligence – in its brute direct form – is “nice to have” in business, but essential in science. Business is more about resilience, intestinal fortitude, looking people in the eye, reading the situation, thinking on your feet, actually liking people, having the maturity and the security to let others excel and surpass you. Admittedly, these often turn out to be only partially achievable ideals.

Scientists, despite their occasional bravado, were timid and conservative in their approach. Business required courage and a thick skin. The closest a scientist might come would be during a thesis defense. Scientists thought applying for a grant constituted pressure. The pressure in sales, marketing, management is monumental by comparison – and is in full bloom daily. In graduate school, 65 percent is a pass. In business, 95 percent of forecast can still be a disaster.

In the intervening decades, science has moved into business and vice versa and these effects have been lessened. There was a brief period when there seemed to be no end to biotech, when an idea was enough to start a company. Scientists dreamed of the apparently endless money the naïve business world would lavish on them – money that had been previously allotted unfairly to undeserving corporate drones.

But we’ve all grown considerably since then. Realistic, achievable collaborations too numerous to mention have been successful. There has consequently been considerable cross pollination: business ‘models’ cannot seem to stop trying to apply scientific models to business scenarios and fields like pharmacoeconomics have bloomed. More and more often it is the science of business and the business of science.

Academic approaches to business and commercial mentalities in science notwithstanding, the drive to bring purer applicable research into medical, diagnostic and biotech carries its own limitation.

A commercial concern will acquire a research effort or a researcher, instantly removing them from the market the business is most interested in and inundating them with the very corporate culture the company is trying to enlighten. Small start-ups with aggressive, innovative approaches are swallowed by large Pharma who are looking to get closer to the real market. The corporate culture is methodically forced downward until the academic connections and approach fade under a results driven regime.

Is this on the test, professor?

But all is not lost. The marriage of business and science changes color and texture. Progress continues. Wounds heal.

Now, I teach management (management “science”, actually) to young graduate students, many of them in high-tech or medical fields. I try to broaden their view and strengthen their hold on the future. The young talent drawn to business and science are no longer so clearly delineated. They display an admirable open mindedness; they want to know both worlds as one.

Big money doesn’t necessarily ruin everything – and science is big money now. It might yet be the biggest. The two worlds alike will always be driven by the same hopelessly addictive allure. Promise.

Besides, we will always have beer.

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About the Author
Lee DesRosiers

Lee DesRosiers is a lecturer at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

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