I would like to confess, to come clean about a guiding principle of my approach to drug discovery and science in general. Here it is in one word: laziness.
Perhaps I should clarify that a bit, in case someone with the ability to decide on my bonus — or my ability to keep my current position at all — is reading this column. I don’t mean “laziness” as in stringing a hammock up in my office and taking siestas rather than doing any work. I mean it in the sense of Not Doing Work That Doesn’t Have to Be Done. The good thing about avoiding that stuff, ideally, is that it gives you more time to do the things that actually do have to be done. The bad part is that the things that have to be done are often, well, a bit less visible and a bit harder to get credit for, which might account for a few things.
Anyone who’s worked in any decent-sized research company will know from experience that there’s always a lot of unnecessary work waiting for you out there: making slides for meetings that aren’t going to happen. Making slides for meetings that actually are going to happen, but making them five times as beautiful as they need to be. Roughly half the meetings on your calendar, while we’re on the topic, are probably partly or wholly superfluous. Initiatives from the HR department are almost always so, as are state-of-the-company addresses, committees to do things that no one really needs done, and committees to do things that no one knows how to do in the first place. I could go on, and so can you.
There are people who just can’t seem to say “No” to such things. Sometimes enough of these folks can be rounded up to make up a whole team, and what motivated, productive teams they are! More often, though, there are a few people in the room who are convinced that they’re doing something vital, and they sort of pull everyone else along with them. Vast amounts of time can be wasted by assuming that someone must know what they’re doing. The tricky part, though, is that many great advances present themselves similarly, with a True Believer or two keeping things going in the face of adversity. But just because something is hard or takes a lot of time doesn’t mean that it’s worth doing. Digging a ditch with a spoon is hard; writing a project report without using the letter “e” is hard. But you shouldn’t conclude that they’re worth the effort.
In the lab and out of it, work is often used as a substitute for thought. It’s one of the oldest and most subtle snares: if you’re staying busy, you must be doing what needs to be done. But that’s a pretty poor metric. At its worst, you see people like a former colleague of mine, who seemed from a distance to be a mighty machine of chemical productivity, constantly flitting around from hood to bench with a flask in each hand. Only on closer inspection did it become clear that he was working so hard because he was doing everything in the most brutal and time-wasting fashion possible, optimizing reaction yields from 83% to 85% (and he was not a process chemist), making model systems of his model systems, and so on. A research director familiar with Macbeth would have pegged this guy’s research reports as more tales told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
It’s easy for me to look down on such people, but it’s not like I’ve never done this exact thing myself at times. There’s this constant feeling that one should be doing something. But while drug discovery has no shortage of work in it, it’s not all of equal value. Running out the synthesis of a series of compounds that no one cares about, with no particular hopes that something will turn up to change anyone’s mind, is just as hard as working on compounds that are at least exploring something new. Getting a full PK workup on a compound that isn’t going anywhere takes just as much time as working on one that everyone wants to know about.
And scheduling yourself (or getting scheduled) for block after block of meetings is in the same category. This may be news to some people, but having a meeting is not an end in itself. A meeting is a means to some other goal, a goal that should be higher than getting everyone in the same room to tell each other things that they already know. Presenting the last two week’s worth of data is not an accomplishment — the two weeks of data are the accomplishment (or should be).
So why are we staying so busy? I slipped my own theory in a couple of paragraphs ago: activity is used as a substitute for thinking. I can see at least two reasons for this. The first is that thinking is not so visible. If you’re in a research environment where people want to see bustling activity, it does you no credit to spend the day thoughtfully looking at the ceiling tiles, even though that might actually be just the thing to do. Sitting back and asking why a certain project is going on (or still going on) isn’t as impressive, when someone walks by, as pushing things along regardless, but it can be more valuable in the end.
The second reason is more subtle, and it’s that thinking is, or can be, quite painful. There’s a recent book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, that illustrates this quite thoroughly. The default setting of our brains appears to be autopilot; the higher reasoning centers only kick in reluctantly, usually when there’s no other alternative (and sometimes not even then). No one who’s spent any time in a large organization will have much reason to doubt this view of the world.
It’s a problem that’s been recognized for a long time. Back in the early 1960s, in the dawn of the era of big data, there was an article wondering about why more decision-makers didn’t avail themselves of these new databases. The answer’s as true today as it was then: people often felt that more information simply made their jobs harder, and their decisions more difficult. They were trying, in other words, not to think so hard about things. We can go back much farther, to Alexander Pope telling us about when ‘tis folly to be wise. (And this is also the person who came up with the line about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing — he was often onto something, was Pope).
Now, an entire organization of people who are standing around meditating on what to do next would probably not work out very well. But we rarely seem to be in danger of making that mistake, while the opposite mistake — do something! — is made every working day. A little more attention to the ceiling tiles, or the outside window, might not come amiss.
Derek B. Lowe has been employed since 1989 in pharmaceutical drug discovery in several therapeutic areas. His blog, In the Pipeline, is located at www.corante.com/pipeline and is an awfully good read. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.