Who’s afraid of the big bad pharma?

Who’s afraid of the big bad pharma?


Ashley Davies joined Havas Lynx as a Medical Writer after leaving academic research for a career in big pharma. Here, she shares and addresses some of the criticisms she faces as an ex-research scientist in the pharma world.

“Urgh, you corporate sellout”

“You’ve sold your soul”

“So you basically work for the devil now, yeah?”

Based on the reactions of my friends, family and co-workers at the time, you might be under the impression that a few years ago I left scientific research for a life of crime or degradation.

No, no. Just scientific writing for a pharma agency.

I still regularly encounter similar reactions when scientists learn what I do for a living. The idea that working in big pharma somehow betrays the supposed purity and heritage of scientific research is pervasive. However, what attracted me to the industry was the opportunity to use my scientific knowledge and skills on patient-centric projects that have a tangible effect in the real world.

Obviously, I have questioned my decision since I left academic research. Did I really give up my scientific integrity and principles when I became a pharma writer? My previous ‘scientist‘ self would say that a sample of one is inconclusive. My current ‘medical writer’ self would say the same thing. The scientific principles that I learned as a research scientist haven’t somehow left me because I now work in pharma. I firmly believe that – as with scientific research – evidence, statistical analysis and a healthy dose of scepticism are absolutely essential for me to do the best job I can as a medical writer… I had a career change, not a lobotomy.

I am aware of the perceived failings of the industry I work in. To ignore them would in itself be a failing of the scientific approach that I learned as a research scientist. Anyone with an internet connection can encounter several news stories about pharma’s supposed terrible failings. A recent Gallup poll in the US showed that pharma is the second worst-rated industry by the public, beaten only by the federal government. A bad reputation indeed. Fellow devotees of Ben Goldacre and his famous book ‘Bad Pharma’ can cite examples of pharma’s bad practices – “Missing Data”, “Bad Regulators”, “Bad Trials” and “Marketing”, to use a few chapter titles from the book.

I think there is more to this than meets the initial Google search, though. Our white paper, “Good Pharma” is a great place to start digging a little deeper into the evidence. For example, in 2013 GSK and Save the Children entered an ambitious partnership with the aim of saving one million children’s lives. The project has wide-reaching aims going beyond the traditional corporation-charity partnership, including R&D for child-friendly medicines, widening vaccination coverage, increasing training investment, and providing humanitarian crisis and disaster relief. To date, they have directly reached 2.6 million children. In this case, moral and commercial drivers come together to create good business for a pharma companyHere, GSK is using its science and global reach to do better.

These days, big pharma polices itself – the regulatory clout that the PMCPA and ABPI wield is a force to be justifiably respected and reckoned with. Adherence to a strict code of practice holds us all accountable for what we communicate. If I was feeling particularly argumentative, I would point out that there is no such watchdog for academic research beyond peer review of scientific papers. Much like what pharma is often accused of, the academic publishing process is not without bias, conflict of interest, profit or commercial exploit. The idea that pure scientific research occupies a moral high ground over pharma in this regard is laughable.

I wouldn’t enjoy my job if evidence suggested that what I do represents a force for bad in the world. Based on this evidence, I think that pharma can be and is an active force for good. I also hope that any potential naysayers are tempted to examine the available evidence before jumping to conclusions… like all good scientists should.