The Great Man’s Secrets

From the delightfully named PharmaGiles at:
The Great Man’s Secrets…
Last post out, I referred to some examples of scientific dishonesty I’d seen, that in themselves are quite minor, but point to an underlying foundation of supposed “excellence” that is actually completely rotten.

One incident happened over 20 years ago. I was attending a summer chemistry symposium at a UK university on new synthetic chemistry methods. One of the keynote speakers was a man whose particular line of research had won him global renown and a huge amount of research funding for his US university department.

The prime reason I was attending the seminar was that I had been trying to reproduce some of the Great Man’s work as part of a project I was working on, with little success. The Great Man himself was very approachable and friendly, and we spent an hour or so talking about what I might be doing wrong, during which I learned a hell of a lot of useful stuff.

I met a lot of other interesting folk that week. It was a residential course by the seaside, the summer evenings were long and warm and the beers long and cool. One of my fellow attendees was a recent Ph. D, whom I’ll call Beth. Beth had done her research under the supervision of the Great Man himself, and therefore had a pretty good insight into just how well the Great Man’s chemistry actually worked.

Beth told me her story.

She’d been working on precisely the kind of transformation I had been, and had been getting precisely the same mediocre results. Months passed, and the deadline for her paper was approaching. She talked over her findings with the Great Man. The results were promising and maybe proved a concept, but were far from spectacular.

“We can’t really publish this” was the Great Man’s response. “You need to try some alternative approaches…”. So Beth worked harder, 16 hours days for 6 days a week. She dried and purified her reagents, cleaned and dried her glassware, run everything under argon, tried all sorts of reagents, substrates and catalysts. Still the unequivocal results wouldn’t come. Her deadline drew nearer. Still the Great Man’s stance was “we can’t publish this.”

Beth was at her wit’s end. Finally she confronted the Great Man. “Look,” she said to him, “this simply isn’t working as a concept, not at least to the extent that you seem to think it should. I can write this up and there’s some interesting results here, but sorry, it just isn’t as great an idea in practice as we thought in theory”.

The Great Man looked at her pityingly and smiled. “No,” he said, “you look. I made my group’s reputation on high yielding, highly stereospecific chemistry. We can’t get a paper along those lines out of your work, good though it is. I’m sure you appreciate that. Now just sit down, go through what all what you’ve done, and write me something I can publish. Understand?”

Beth was dumbfounded. She was also tired and exhausted and at the end of her tether. She went back to her tiny student flat and cried for hours and hours.

Then she sat down and started to write her paper.

She gave it to the Great Man. He was delighted. The paper was peer reviewed and published.

Beth got her PhD with bells on and a great job with a big Pharma company. Pretty soon she was a section manager, then a departmental one. Our work kept us in touch until she decided that she didn’t want to work for Big Pharma any more.

We still get a Christmas card from her every year. It always says “Happy Easter”. It’s her little joke about living the lie.

There’s a happy ending, which I’ll tell because it’s sweet and because I’m a positive kind of guy at heart.

(Note: For the prurient amongst you, no, Beth and I never “hooked up”, as it’s hard to make it with a girl who steers every topic of conversation on to her boyfriend: you know how it goes. “Nice weather we’re having”: “My boyfriend likes weather”, that sort of thing. But we did stay in touch and when I finally met the guy, I had to concede a lost cause…)

Soon after that conference, Beth flew home and married her childhood sweetheart. Bob is a clean-cut, stunningly handsome all-American guy and is that rare bird, an honest attorney. He takes on a lot of “little guy” cases and usually wins. Beth is a full-time mom to their three young children now. She doesn’t have to live the lie any more. Some of her contempories have gone on to become senior managers, even very senior managers, in Big Pharma. All of them have undoubtedly just the right background, having been thoroughly conditioned into telling their superiors just what they want to hear, hence their rise to great heights.

They are just the sort of folk that big Pharma want.

But are they what it needs?

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