Many powerful emotions motivate us in the search for new knowledge

I’d like to put in a word for a couple of motivating factors that I believe are insufficiently acknowledged in the practice of drug discovery: fear and greed. Any readers who invest in any kind of public markets will know those two well, since they are also the primary movers of stock and bond prices worldwide. It’s true that if you read news reports, you will hear all about how some market went up or down responding to macroeconomic concerns, commodity prices, or world events. But in the end, markets go up when greed gets ahead of fear, and they drop when fear catches up with greed (as it always manages to).


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At a company level, money is a powerful motivator to build new things

In drug discovery, I will assume that greed needs no introduction. The first company to discover a truly effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease (let alone a preventative!) can confidently expect to make scores of billions of dollars from it. We are, in fact, currently engaged in finding out if companies can make that sort of money even from ineffective Alzheimer’s treatments as well - several of them seem willing to give it a try, from my own reading of the situation. No, the demand for a useful new drug is always there, and that’s what keeps people investing in all sorts of interesting new ideas and long shots. Every great drug has gone through a point where people look its prospects over and say: ‘You know, that could work…’ and reach into some pile of funding to help make it happen. Naturally, most of the failures have gone through that stage as well, but we’ll avert our eyes from that (just like most of the industry does!)

 Both academia and industry live in the constant fear of being ‘scooped’

Fear, though, should get more credit than it does. Both academia and industry live in the constant fear of being ‘scooped’. Someone else may already be working on your idea, your target, your compound class, and the fateful day draws ever closer when you will finally be made aware of it. That does keep a person moving along! A classic example from the early days of this century was the first full sequencing of the human genome. Patent applications were flying thickly across the skies as people mined the emerging genomic landscape for potential drug targets, and the worry was that every such target that existed (or ever would) was about to be owned by someone else. In retrospect, the word ‘panic’ is quite appropriate. Quite a few genomics-focused business deals were struck for significant amounts of money, which three or four years later appeared most unwise.

That’s FOMO for you, the fear of missing out, and it’s a particularly potent variety of fear that can scramble the thinking of almost anyone. My own belief is that we’re seeing something similar with AI-driven deals right now – at least, FOMO is the unspoken pitch behind many of the presentations I’ve seen from AI hopefuls looking for investors and partners. ‘The revolution is here’, they say (although they usually take a few more words to say it), and if you really want to stay here on the ground, with your shoes stuck in that mud the way they are, while everyone else ascends into the heavens on computational wings…well, I suppose that’s your business, eh? But why would you do a thing like that when you could feel the AI transformation wash over you, too? And over your portfolio, and your balance sheet? Why indeed?

Artificial intelligence itself is (probably) not susceptible to such emotions, although its human practitioners and its human customers certainly are (and how!). But there’s a gentler and more honorable emotion that we humans also experience in this business, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it credit as well: hope. I mean, as a practical matter, I (like every other drug company researcher) have signed my intellectual property rights over to my employer. I am not personally going to reap billions of dollars from any huge discoveries I might make, so when I think of some new idea to try out, I am not really motivated by thoughts of swimming through piles of cash. No, I (like every other drug company researcher) spend the bulk of my time working on ideas that don’t make it all the way to human trials or fail them if they do. But maybe this one will work. Really work. It just might – weirder-sounding things have, you know. And I’m still excited to find out.