Djcnor’s Weblog

Andrew Witty: My New Hero

Posted on: February 14, 2009

Never heard of him, right? You will. He’s the head of the world’s second largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, and he has pledged that in the 50 least developed countries in the world, the prices of the drugs his company makes will be cut to no more than 25% of US/UK prices, as well as making these same drugs more affordable in middle-income countries as well.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/feb/13/glaxo-smith-kline-cheap-medicine

There’s more. He’s opening  up to all researchers. the company’s intellectual property rights and research results regarding negleted diseases, and planning to reinvest 20% of the company’s profits in the hospitals, clinics, and staff in those same least developed countries.

Finally, his company will be inviting scientists from other companies, NGOs, and governments to come to the lab where his company researches tropical diseases and join in the hunt for treatments.

This will make a major difference in the lives of so many people. It will serve as a challenge to other drug companies that will look like scrooges compared to this.

I must say I’m delighted. It’s enough to bring me out of biomedical “retirement”. Long ago, like all professional biochemists, I faced the choice between employment in academia and employment in a pharmaceutical company. If I worked in academia, I would not earn as much, whichever institution I was working for at the time would have intellectual rights to any research I did that might have potential for profitable exploitation, but my work could be published and open to the world. If I worked for a drug company, I might well earn more but my work might go unpublished or at least held back from publishing until developed to the point of profitability. Its benefits might even remain unacessible to those who needed it most. I chose academia.

One of the  things I least liked about the way scientists work was the fact that results were not shared until published and personal rights established. You knew that other scientists were working on the same thing you were, but instead of working with them, thus not wasting duplication of efforts and perhaps producing results sooner, you tried your very hardest to “scoop” them by getting your work published first. I wished I could work cooperatively rather than competitively with other scientists.

I am an open person. When I heard another scientist talk about her work and I thought I had some knowledge that might prove useful, I wanted to blurt it right out. I did not like having to hold my tongue.

I also wanted to live a more balanced life than many scientists led. Spending 60 to 80 hours per week in the lab was not unusual. This left little time for families and other interests, and I was not going to give either of these up for success as a scientist. If making time to go to plays, to be politically active, to go on long holidays in foreign lands, to fully develop my other talents in writing and in textile arts, and so on and so on meant that I would be scooped, so be it. I decided that academia came closer to offering what I wanted in a scientific career and that I would stay in science exactly as long as I was allowed to be my own kind of scientist. Anyone concerned with why science stays a mostly male enclave should consider the female attitude toward life balance.

A time came when that was made impossible, and I left. What a wonderful thing it will be if science ever begins to operate another way.

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