Biopharmaceutical R&D Productivity 2016

However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results — Winston Churchill


On the morning of the 16th of July, I was stationed at the Base Camp at Trinity in a position about ten miles from the site of the explosion

The explosion took place at about 5:30 A.M.  I had my face protected by a large board in which a piece of dark welding glass had been inserted. My first impression of the explosion was the very intense flash of light, and a sensation of heat on the parts of my body that were exposed. Although I did not look directly towards the object, I had the impression that suddenly the countryside became brighter than in full daylight. I subsequently looked in the direction of the explosion through the dark glass and could see something that looked like a conglomeration of flames that promptly started rising. After a few seconds the rising flames lost their brightness and appeared as a huge pillar of smoke with an expanded head like a gigantic mushroom that rose rapidly beyond the clouds probably to a height of the order of 30,000 feet. After reaching its full height, the smoke stayed stationary for a while before the wind started dispersing it.

About 40 seconds after the explosion the air blast reached me. I tried to estimate its strength by dropping from about six feet small pieces of paper before, during and after the passage of the blast wave. Since, at the time, there was no wind I could observe very distinctly and actually measure the displacement of the pieces of paper that were in the process of falling while the blast was passing. The shift was about 2 ½ meters, which, at the time, I estimated to correspond to the blast that would be produced by ten thousand tons of T.N.T. 

The above passage is Enrico Fermi’s eyewitness account of the Trinity plutonium bomb test, which took place on July 16, 1945. Nearly a week would pass before an official estimate of the bomb’s yield – using data gathered by two lead-lined tanks, fifty beryllium-copper microphones, plus numerous seismographs, gamma ray detectors, neutron detectors and mechanical pressure gauges – would show Fermi’s on-the-spot estimate to be roughly correct

The Trinity test is perhaps the most dramatic example of what has come to be known as a Fermi question – a question for which no immediately available precise answer exists, but whose answer can be approximated well enough to allow immediately useful action

R&D productivity is a Fermi question. Tracing the economic returns of a discovery from the moment an idea forms in a scientist’s head until the last pill’s sold is as unnecessary as it is unlikely. The same goes for a comprehensive, finely calibrated inventory of all factors that aid or impair productivity

We need only enough data to take informed and effective action – and sufficient data currently exists. Yet despite the availability of this information, much of the decline in R&D productivity can be traced to unforced errors made by managers lacking (awareness of) relevant information

In this study we’ve measured – in every useful way we can imagine — the R&D productivity of the 22 largest (by R&D spending) US-listed biopharmaceutical companies. Our measures are neither perfect, nor complete – but they are more than adequate to inform immediate and effective actions. Notably, all of the data used in our metrics is publicly disclosed, in one form or another, by the companies themselves – like scraps of paper that blow in the wind. All that’s required is to pick them up and have a careful look…

Newly updated and expanded report available now