“What traditions do you want to follow for your baby?” asked the midwife leading our prenatal education group.
As we went around the circle of parents-to-be, most couples discussed holiday traditions, camping trips, and weekend routines. When it was my turn to share, I thought about the pseudoscience that had been espoused in this group — the alleged benefits of eating the placenta, theories about the harmful effects of vaccines, and the like.
“I want a facts-based, scientific household,” I said. “For example, is breastfeeding better than formula? To me the only thing that matters is the clear scientific consensus that breastfed infants grow up to be, on average, advantaged in some way — maybe healthier or smarter.”
The moms and dads in the group nodded their agreement, but I’m not sure they had a deep understanding of what I meant.
As CEO of a biotechnology company, I hire great scientists from the best institutions in the world with full quivers of scientific tools and skills. But if I fail to implement a facts-based scientific culture, then their know-how is wasted. The parenting discussion got me wondering about how one creates the right biotech “household.”
Scientific culture should be built out of three major components — respect, openness, and integrity. These words form the acronym ROI which, no coincidence, also stands for return on investment.
Given recent high-profile news stories, the general public could easily assume that biopharma companies intentionally cheat and manipulate studies. While isolated bad players can tarnish the industry — look no further than Theranos, which lied its way to millions of investment dollars with no true ROI — in the long run, scientific rigor prevails and is the basis of a culture that propagates the medical innovations that improve patient care and save lives.
Respect ensures that great ideas are not squashed by internal politics or aggressive individuals. The youngest, least-experienced employees often have the most novel ideas because they are not burdened by decades of failed experiments. Although all ideas should be examined with healthy skepticism, all ideas should be considered.
To help set and communicate corporate priorities, managers must establish processes that objectively evaluate new ideas. For example, if a young Ph.D. wants to pursue a drug target that is interesting academically but not commercially, a respectful culture brings other experts into the conversation so if the idea isn’t pursued the scientist understands why.
Respect is also essential for companies to uncover systemic problems or bad actors. If employees don’t feel respected, they won’t report problems.
It isn’t just a matter of creating a big-picture trusting, respectful environment. Little things also matter, so workers need to show respect on a daily basis, not just when large problems arise. A respectful environment keeps negative emotions out of science, preventing anger and resentment from causing bad decisions and poor scientific results.
Openness is another key to a functional scientific environment. It’s a requirement for collaboration. While a lab might point to a particularly valuable technician who is a wizard at something no one else can do, this situation can cause a functional disaster. What if that technician quits and no one knows the protocol, or results turn up wrong and no one can understand the problem to troubleshoot? In the right environment, the technician should teach others, cultivating team-building and managerial skills, and still be recognized for his or her individual skills. Protocols should be widely understood and shared, just as data should be well-documented and available to all.
Openness can be tricky to navigate for biotechnology CEOs and managers, since they live in a world driven by intellectual property. They must be wise tacticians to protect critical information since both internal and external disclosure can be risky. Navigating these waters can be challenging, but maintaining openness on the company’s business plans and strategic objectives is important to prevent employees from pursuing worthless experiments or resenting you for being cagey.
Science is nothing without integrity. Openness and respect make science more efficient but it can still be done (albeit inefficiently) in a closed, disrespectful environment. In contrast, science cannot be done without integrity, a basic requirement to apply the scientific method. A scientist without integrity will falsify experiments and lie about data interpretations. Integrity is an entire company’s responsibility, but the CEO must lead by example.
The biotech CEO is often torn between commercial and scientific interests in ways that challenge integrity. For example, if competitors lie about data and funding, you may also be tempted to lie or stretch the truth. Your staff will be the first to pick up on this and may start to cut corners as well.
Science is real. Literally. What we know to be real about the natural world was achieved through the scientific method. To me, science differentiates humans from all other animals. Even though many animals have the capacity for learning, none can perform experiments, interpret them, and communicate the results to others.
All biotechnology CEOs should be energetic about their higher calling as caretakers of science and fostering cultures that support it.
David Johnson is the co-founder and CEO of GigaGen, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company.