Manage science like a business project

According to Lisa M. Krieger, the medical industry “every year spends more than $50 billion on research and development yet produces merely 20 new drugs.” She writes

Andy Grove led Intel to spectacular success by developing a newer, faster and better product every year.

If only medicines could be developed with the same kind of urgency and efficiency that spawned the computer revolution.

That is Grove’s dream. … “Manage science like a business project. … We do this all the time in industry.”


On Monday, Grove will be the keynote speaker at the World Stem Cell Summit in Pasadena. Last week, his editorial calling for expedited clinical trials was featured in the prestigious journal Science. And, previously, he was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

His 2007 speech before the Society for Neuroscience, damning medical bureaucracy for slowing progress, spawned both supporters and angry detractors, triggering a controversy that still reverberates.

Meanwhile, he has designed a more objective test to measure disease progression. He has proposed a way to reform clinical trials so they’re faster and need fewer patients. And he wants drug companies, like tech companies, to learn from their failures and build data-driven feedback loops.

“Taking apart a system and analyzing its parts — that’s not a medical process, it’s an engineering process,” he said.

Responding to his challenge, UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley offer a two-year master’s degree in “translational medicine,” the discipline of transferring lab breakthroughs to the marketplace. The MBA-style program, which Grove helped establish with a $1.5 million donation, targets students from both medical and high-tech fields.

You should always take medical research with a big grain of salt. According to the deck of “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

Much of what medical researchers conclude in their studies is misleading, exaggerated, or flat-out wrong. So why are doctors — to a striking extent — still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice? Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their bad science.

In that article David H. Freedman writes

“If we don’t tell the public about these problems, then we’re no better than nonscientists who falsely claim they can heal,” he says. “If the drugs don’t work and we’re not sure how to treat something, why should we claim differently? Some fear that there may be less funding because we stop claiming we can prove we have miraculous treatments. But if we can’t really provide those miracles, how long will we be able to fool the public anyway? The scientific enterprise is probably the most fantastic achievement in human history, but that doesn’t mean we have a right to overstate what we’re accomplishing.”

We could solve much of the wrongness problem, Ioannidis says, if the world simply stopped expecting scientists to be right. That’s because being wrong in science is fine, and even necessary—as long as scientists recognize that they blew it, report their mistake openly instead of disguising it as a success, and then move on to the next thing, until they come up with the very occasional genuine breakthrough. But as long as careers remain contingent on producing a stream of research that’s dressed up to seem more right than it is, scientists will keep delivering exactly that.

“Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor,” he says. “I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.”


Medical research is not especially plagued with wrongness. Other meta-research experts have confirmed that similar issues distort research in all fields of science, from physics to economics (where the highly regarded economists J. Bradford DeLong and Kevin Lang once showed how a remarkably consistent paucity of strong evidence in published economics studies made it unlikely that any of them were right).

CACM recently interviewed Prith Banerjee, the director of HP Labs. Here are the final 3 Q&A’s:

Q: How do you inspire your researchers to think big?

A: Unless I engage with the researchers on a regular basis, the passion will not be there, the intensity will not be there. I say, “What are you trying to build? Can we not do something bigger?” Then I say, “The specific research you are doing, how will it make that dream come true?” There’s an unrelenting pressure that I want to be able to feel — that if we don’t do it, someone else will.

Q: Before you joined HP, you spent more than 20 years in academia. Did you find the transition difficult?

A: Many people warned me, “Prith, you will not survive.” Fortunately, my experience in academia was not in only one position. I also took two exits into the world of startups, and what I learned from those startups are things I’ve tried to preach and practice at HP Labs.

Q: Such as?

A: In academia, professors can work and work and refine their papers to the last word. The world of startups doesn’t give you that luxury. I learned how to deliver fast. I learned how to run — I am always running. I try to convey that to my colleagues at HP Labs — you have to find the right trade-off. I want you to document your work. I want you to advance the state of the art, but don’t just keep on publishing and refining — run, right? Start making stuff, as well.

According to Peter Denning

An innovation is a transformation of practice in a community. It is not the same as the invention of a new idea or object. The real work of innovation is in the transformation of practice.


Tell me (anonymous OK)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s