Join me now, as we look into a typical conference room at a typical large drug company. Hmm: in it we find a not-too-attractive table, surrounded by several not-all-that-comfortable chairs, and all of them occupied today. On one end of the room is a screen where a presentation begins; on the other is a lumpy green artwork that no one has consciously noticed in years. People are drinking mediocre coffee from oversized mugs, and one attendee has brought a late lunch, to eat during the meeting and thus demonstrate the thickness and complexity of his appointment schedule.
Standing to one side of the screen is the lucky person who has to give an update on the progress of a preclinical project. Depending on what company this is, this could be a fairly easy task or a disgustingly hard one, a scale that roughly correlates with the number of individual slides multiplied by the frequency of the presentation. These barn dances could take place three or four times a year, or they could go off every couple of weeks -- in the latter case we at least know what that person up there does with most of their time: he makes slides. Remember, at some companies this is considered a valuable skill, well worth the sacrifice of a clinical program or two. We'll always have Paris: even if the drug portfolio is ugly, at least the presentations were beautiful.
Now the talk begins. The opening slides tell the audience nothing that they shouldn't already know, but you might be surprised at how many people present don't know these details as well as they should. "Not my project" is a spacious category in which to file things, and it's a folder that almost never has to have anything taken out of it. It's easy to get in the habit of putting more in there than is prudent. Some people seem to have started the process already, if the vaguely-interested looks on their faces are anything to go by.
Even among the people who are paying attention -- a group that, while usually in the majority, never reaches 100% of the attendees -- the reasons for their interest cover a wide range. One person over there on the right is working on a somewhat related project, one that's a few months behind the one under discussion. He's watching closely in an attempt to predict his own future. If things are going well, he'll make sure that his own project is seen to be related to this one, and if they aren't, he'll make sure that it's seen to be completely different. Chameleons have nothing on (some) project leaders. Nearby is someone who ran a project a year or so ago on the same sort of target, an effort now sadly (and justly) terminated. This listener is torn between wanting something in this space to finally work, but simultaneously wanting it not to happen for someone else. The outcome of this internal struggle is still uncertain.
To his right is another project leader, working in the same therapeutic area on a different class of target. She's got an internal conflict, too -- the area needs some clinical successes to point at, so in general she's rooting for all of the other programs in it. But at the same time, resourcing is a zero-sum game if there ever was one. If today's project goes down, perhaps hers can scoop up some new members during the ensuing confusion. What to do? The more honorable course is to hope for a unexpectedly quick success, which could also free up some people, and she decides to stick with this attitude. For now.
The head of the whole therapeutic area is there, too, but he has no such dilemmas. He knows that they need some plausible clinical candidates, and he doesn't much care who comes up with them. Some people are a lot more likely to deliver than others, of course, and it's no secret to anyone who they are. The problem is, putting these people on a given project, which might be necessary for its success, is not sufficient. He's tempted, if he ever starts his own company, to name it Necessary But Not Sufficient Pharmaceuticals, which is a name that Wall Street probably wouldn't find very funny, but everyone in the industry would be able to relate to instantly. It might even be a real help in recruiting!
The next phase of the talk brings people up to date on what the main issues were at the last presentation. If that was far enough in the past, a couple of the allegedly reprised bullet points may have changed character in the meantime, depending on how sneaky today's project leader is. In this case, the issues that have been rewritten to sound more menacing and insurmountable are the ones that have actually been dealt with since their last appearance. In that case, they will be heroically dispatched in the ensuing slides, with much swordplay and with flattering camera angles and spot lighting.
The head biologist on the project knows just how this works, and he's listening to make sure his people get credit where it's due. The chemist presenting today is pretty reliable on this count, unlike that other bozo sitting down there on the right, who seems to regard biologists as speed bumps who have unaccountably been provided with human speech. What no one in the pharmacology corridor can understand is how the guy doesn't catch on to how all his assays, all his top-priority-super-rush jobs, get shuffled to the bottom of the pile as a matter of policy. It takes all kinds, the biologist muses, but why exactly does it have to take this one?
Said bozo now makes his presence felt as the presentation moves on to new results. A way around the latest problem has just been proposed, and he's here, as he always is for people, to tell them that it isn't going to work. The horrible part is that he's mostly right about this stuff. That's not because he's a drug discovery genius, unfortunately for him -- it's because most things in a project don't work, just as a matter of course. Even his younger colleagues catch on to this after a fairly short while, when they notice that he almost never suggests anything that has a better chance of working instead.
We're on the home stretch now. The current issues for the project are being listed, and they're a mixed bag. Some of them are actually the same issues from that slide near the beginning, albeit reworded a bit for everyone's viewing pleasure. Some of the ones that the presenter feels are potentially the nastiest are emphasized a bit less than the ones that he thinks that they might be able to do something about. Just as in writing a screenplay for Hollywood, you want to have your eyes on the sequel.
And as people shift in their chairs and glance at the clock, somewhere down the hall from the meeting room, or in another building entirely, there are people actually working up reactions, or setting up assays. Someone is drawing a new structure on the glass of a fume hood and asking her labmates what they think about it, and someone else is sitting in his office, looking out the window, and trying to work some rough edges off a new idea. But not in here. Not exactly. . .