During the time Andrew S. Grove spent at Intel, the computer chip company he co-founded, the number of transistors on a chip went from about 1,000 to almost 10 billion. Over that same period, the standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease went from L-dopa to … L-dopa.
Grove (who beat prostate cancer 12 years ago and now suffers from Parkinson’s) thinks there is something deeply wrong with this picture, and he is letting the pharmaceutical industry, the National Institutes of Health and academic biomedicine have it. Like an increasing number of critics who are fed up with biomedical research that lets paralyzed rats (but not people) walk again, that cures mouse (but not human) cancer and that lifts the fog of the rodent version of Alzheimer’s but not people’s, he is taking aim at what more and more critics see as a broken system.
The institution of research in this country isn’t without its flaws, but Grove doesn’t have a clue. There are two big reasons we can’t just ramp up biomedical research and see new results flowing out of the pipeline and into the hospitals at an accelerated rate. The biological research program is not comparable to Intel’s computer chip production!
Biological research is not an exercise in applied engineering — we’re trying to discover fundamental unknown elements of biology, and it isn’t at all like scaling up or refining chip production. This is important: you can’t make science a process of applied engineering without destroying it. The job of the scientist is to uncover whole new principles and concepts, and that means there is a lot of scurrying about to reveal stuff that isn’t immediately obvious how it can be used in a practical sense.
Grove is looking in the wrong places. We’re seeing rapid progress in many fields of science — evo-devo, to name one close to my heart — and he’s simply blind to them, and demanding immediate productivity in areas where he can’t even define the problem and which need more basic research to improve our understanding.
I would be more impressed with the superiority of engineering in the L-dopa example of Grove’s strategy for improving a chip didn’t involve throwing out the old model and plugging in a new one. Why didn’t Intel develop a treatment for my old 8088 that would transform it into a quad-core 64-bit Xeon. One could argue, I suppose, that our comparable strategy for Parkinson’s is to allow the old relics to die off while our Uterine Fab Units build brand new brains that work without crashing.
It’s especially ironic since he is demanding new treatments because he has Parkinson’s, and now he thinks he can just demand a cure on a schedule, like he was ordering an iPhone.
It’s too bad Grove wasted all those years playing with simple toys like microprocessors instead of trying to understand something rather more complex.