Some days, I wish Archimedes had never taken that bath.
As legend has it, the Greek scholar was trying to solve the vexing problem of measuring the volume of hard-to-measure objects when he lowered himself into the tub. As the water level rose, Archimedes realized that water displacement could be used to assess volume, a discovery so profound that he ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!”
The “Eureka moment” has become a cliche of scientific discovery. Unfortunately, modern science doesn’t work the way it used to — particularly biomedical science — and there are few singular moments that prompt scientists to shout with excitement, much less dash naked into the street. But the myth of the Eureka moment actually hamstrings the ability of researchers to show progress.
In the pharmaceutical industry, progress tends to be incremental, small advance must be stacked on top of small advance, clinical success must be built upon clinical success, until — after a period of years — a new, lifesaving therapy makes it to patients. It’s an expensive, uncertain undertaking; the pharmaceutical industry spent nearly $50 billion on R&D last year — quintuple what Hollywood made at the box office.
But because those workaday advances in pharmaceutical laboratories don’t provoke Eureka moments, and it can hard to build compelling, Archimedes-type narratives around the vital work in our laboratories. And that’s why I’m paying particularly close attention to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America’s annual meeting that just kicked off. The gathering is a chance to delve deeper into what innovation really means, and what advances really require.
PhRMA is moving to aggressively share its story this week. You can catch all of the proceeding via webcast today and tomorrow, and the group’s blog will be filled from commentary from the industry’s leaders and others, all commenting on the complex interplay between innovation, incentives and the public health. The public discussion is critically important, because the better we understand the process by which ideas become medication, the better we can understand the investments — financial and otherwise — those advances require.
It’s my hope that the public streams of information coming out of the PhRMA meeting this week will give viewers and readers a better sense of what the research enterprise looks like: a collaborative, messy, intellectual marathon, not a quick soak in the tub.
Note: PhRMA is a client of WCG