I’ve read something. It made me think.

Christmas being time off, I started reading Ben Goldacre’s new book Bad Pharma. I hugely enjoyed Bad Science, which was simultaneously humorous and informative. Bad Pharma concerns bad practice in the pharmaceutical industry, but also highlights problems more general to academia, particularly negative results not being published. This is very common to computer science too, where there is a perception that unless your work demonstrates something new or better than what previously existed, its not worthy of publication (there’s a frustrating personal thread to this, but I’ll keep shut about that). There’s nothing wrong with publishing negative results, it can highlight how not to do something, and can save other people huge amounts of time in not going down dead ends already explored but not published. It can also highlight challenging areas in a field.

Anyway, I digress. Bad Pharma was of particular interest to me because my interest in modelling the immune system could well take me close to the pharma industry. I’m not put off, though I appreciate knowing the sorts of things that go on. As Goldacre highlights near the end, the industry is generally populated with good people, but the industry is structured in such a way that they can collectively do harm. Society sets out the rules of the pharma game, what can and cannot be done. The pharma industry is an industry, and as with many companies their main motivation is to generate profit for their share holders. They shouldn’t do things that are illegal, and if society wants to keep them honest they should police and regulate. Many of the horrors in the book are as much a failing of good regulation (and government) as they are failings of the industry. There are parallels with other industries that have recently come to light. We lambast Starbucks, Google and Amazon for paying almost no tax. But they’ve done nothing illegal, if anything they’ve excelled at what they’re supposed to do: maximize profits for their shareholders. We scowl at the investment banking industry for taking huge risks which culminated in a global financial meltdown (I appreciate this is a complex problem), but again, in most cases they were acting within the law. And where does this pressure to take risks ultimately come from? Who’s money was being invested to generate a return? Pension funds and personal savings. I feel again that a good chunk of the blame can be laid at the regulator’s doors for failing to set appropriate rules for the banking game. The libor-rigging scandal did nothing to make banks more palatable to the general public, but individuals within the banking industry had raised concerns about this system to the regulators years ago. More recently the papers and the Leveson inquiry. Papers are under pressure to invade people’s privacy and get big scoops because that sells papers. We say “bad tabloid!”, but they wouldn’t do this if there wasnt a demand for those sorts of story among the general public in the first place.

Where am I going with all of this? Most of these problems are complex, and there’s plenty of failure to spread around all parties. And if there’s one thing I can be pretty sure of, its that my work is not going to impact any of this. Perhaps I should get back to it… I have my own complex robotics and immune-related problems to solve.