Addressing Systemic Racism in the Biopharmaceutical Industry

Dr. Frank L. Douglas looks at how can big pharma improve D&I in their companies.

Recently, I had a conversation with a white female scientist and former colleague about the importance of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in drug innovation. She reminded me of common things that we had experienced during our time in large pharma. One was the clear difference in the treatment of white males versus women during succession planning discussions. White male candidates got the “opportunity to fail” or were given coaches to bridge gaps, whereas female candidates had to be perfect and already operating at the level to which they could be promoted. The second observation was that white males were invariably selected to lead major projects. She referred to it as the “White Mandemic in Large Pharma.” In the wider health care arena, the repeated refusal to appoint Dr. Janet Woodcock Commissioner of the FDA, is one of the most visible examples of this “mandemic.”

In 1997, as the new EVP responsible for Research and Development at Hoechst Marion Roussel (which later merged with Rhone Poulenc Rorer to form Aventis, later acquired by Sanofi), I introduced a number of changes. These changes were focused on leveraging the diversity of approaches in the three companies, Hoechst, Marion Merrell Dow and Roussel Uclaf, to improve drug innovation. One of these changes was the focus on common mechanisms of action. This encouraged the profiling of new lead compounds in all relevant disease models irrespective of the geographic location or nationality of the scientist who had originally synthesized the compound.

Later, in 2000, with the announcement of the deciphering of the human genome, we introduced Chemical Biology Platforms, such as Kinase, Protease, Ion Channels, and GPCR Platforms that further encouraged collaboration among the three discovery centers and academic laboratories in the USA, France, and Germany. These platforms were hubs of multidisciplinary communities of practice across the discovery centers and product realization (development).

Today, the business case for D&I is even more compelling. For example, in 2019, seventy percent of the 3000 drugs in Phase III clinical trials came from small biotech companies.1

The 2017 Annual Reports reported that only 10 out of 44 of Pfizer compounds in clinical development came from in house discovery and only two out of 18 of J&J compounds came out of their own labs. (STAT, Emily H. Jung, Dec. 2020). In short, drug innovation is occurring increasingly more frequently in small biotech startups and academic laboratories.

How can big pharma improve D&I in their companies?

First, each company has to have the courage to make structural and organizational changes to foster equity and opportunity for every one in their employ. Equity has to exist internally as well as characterize the interactions with external stakeholders. Employees who feel that they are not being treated equitably and experience few opportunities to advance within the organization will be less motivated and less likely to create innovative solutions that inspire their peers.

Second, in addition to testing the rules and regulations for consistency with equity, they should ask three questions: What behaviors are rewarded? Who gets promoted? And, are the criteria for rewards and promotions transparent and clearly give everyone equal opportunity to achieve? This approach should be the same whether one is trying to ensure that every contributor and innovative idea has the same opportunity to be seen and heard in a multinational company as it is in a US-based organization with privileged groups.

Third, old excuses such as “the pipeline of such individuals does not exist” should be buried in the dustbin of history. The COVID pandemic has shone light on the known health and opportunity disparities among underrepresented minorities. The paucity of Black clinical investigators and the lower percentages of Blacks participating in clinical trials were evident in this pandemic. This is particularly stark given the contribution of Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett in innovating the Moderna vaccine and the well recognized fact that trusted advisors are the best persons to treat vaccine hesitancy. Large pharma can bridge these opportunity gaps by establishing collaborative Research Centers at select HBCUs. They will narrow the “opportunity gap” as was so poignantly identified by Kenneth Frazier, the only Black CEO in large pharma, who recently retired as CEO of Merck.

Systemic racism will be in retreat when equity and opportunity reinforce empathy and replace the use of stereotypes.

Dr Frank L. Douglas, PhD, MD was formerly a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was involved in founding the Center for Biomedical Innovation. From 2009-20015, he was president and CEO of the Austen BioInnovation Institute. In 2018, he published an autobiography, Defining Moments of a Free Man from a Black Stream.


1. The changing landscape of Research and Development. IQVIA Institute for Human Drug Sciences. April 2019, p. 15.