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People, Not Science, Make Decisions


People constantly make decisions. We choose vanilla instead of chocolate or a job in DC instead of a job in Texas. Can’t decide? Then, maybe, flip a coin.


Yet, the most important decisions—such as FDA approvals–can’t be treated so cavalierly. While scientific evidence and good judgment are necessary to make these choices, people make the decisions.


To FDA Matters, the people making the decisions at FDA are its strength. They are smart, conscientious and committed. Yet, when asked about bottlenecks at FDA, I have to admit that people slow the process down. There are good reasons why this is so.  


FDA lacks sufficient resources.  FDA has been dramatically understaffed for decades. Better funding in recent years has improved the situation, but not nearly enough. Also, it seems like new demands on FDA are increasing faster than staff can be added.


Many FDA employees have overwhelming workloads and inadequate time to refresh their scientific knowledge or broaden their thinking. As a result, higher levels of evidence and “certainty” become necessary to reach decisions. Getting to “yes,” particularly for product approvals, often consumes a great deal more time than telling a sponsor “no” or asking for more information. Hiring more staff would reduce or at least stabilize workloads*.


FDA’s culture promotes intensive scientific discussion.  Objective science-based decisionmaking is a goal, not a reality. People arrive at decisions with a bundle of perceptions and experiences that render their judgment subjective. On the flip side, they probably wouldn’t have much to contribute to the decisionmaking process without those experiences.


This is true for FDA, where agency staff—all with subjective views–interact and struggle to come to a clear decision.  If six or seven well-trained, highly-disciplined FDA scientists examine a pre-clinical or clinical trial, there are certain to be multiple views about the meaning of the data It is a slow path to a consensus, if one can be forged at all.   


Delay can increase further if the agency—as it has in the past—expects a single conclusion to emerge from such staff engagement. One of Commissioner Hamburg notable efforts has been to manage dissent (and let it be expressed in public), rather than always force consensus decision-making.


Science has become more complex and results often unpredictable. Life sciences’ products are increasingly based on cutting edge discoveries. It takes more time, more thought and more knowledge on FDA’s part to make a good decision about them. No sponsor feels good when FDA doesn’t know the science behind their product. Delays are inevitable while FDA catches up.


Medical and scientific information is rarely simple. Sometimes a protocol has a sound hypothesis, great supporting science, and logical inferences from similar studies, etc. It feels like running the clinical trials is merely a formality. …and yet the product ultimately turns out to have little efficacy or unexpected safety problems. Every FDA reviewer knows: assumptions based on early data can often be wrong. Biological complexity can, indeed, lead to surprises.


Conclusion. There is much that can be done to improve the FDA regulatory pathways, particularly for approvals, even though bottlenecks are inevitable.


FDA staff makes the decisions, which is how it should be. As individuals, their decisions cannot be isolated from workload, culture or complexity. Faster is possible, but it is important that people slow the process enough to be sure that decisions are both scientific and sound.




*   Adding new staff eventually helps. However, it can take upwards of two years for new hires to be trained, integrated, knowledgeable and experienced enough to lessen the workloads of others.


Complexity, Uncertainty, Unpredictability: Not Necessarily Bars to FDA Approvals        July 17th, 2011

In most discussions of science and medicine, there is an implicit assumption that the human body is a machine—complex and biological, but still a machine. If we could only understand all the mechanisms, processes and parts of that machine, then we could prevent and cure disease. Yet, the further we travel into the biology of life, the more complexity we find and the less certainty and predictability.


“The human body as a machine” is a metaphor, not a fact. Once we accept this, FDA Matters believes we can become liberated from unrealistic expectations about medical discovery and FDA’s role as a gatekeeper for new products that benefit patients.  Read the rest of this entry


The State of the FDA—January 2011      January 16th, 2011

FDA’s touches the lives of every American at least 6 to 10 times each day. The agency oversees 80% of the nation’s food supply, all of human/animal medical products and cosmetics, and almost all radiation-emitting devices. Altogether, the agency is responsible for about 20% of all consumer dollars spent in the United States.


With the President set to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress in 10 days, it seemed a good time for FDA Matters to provide its view of the “State of the FDA.” At the beginning of 2011, the agency is doing well, but has a lot of catching-up to do and faces a number of threats. Read the rest of this entry

One Response to “People, Not Science, Make Decisions”

  1. Ed Lin says:

    With FDA becoming the biggest hurddle in our highly regulated pharma industry, how can a small to medium size generic company survive these days? To just give you an example, our ANDAs have waited 27 long months and still not a sign of FDA’s committing the PAI. Where is the “right place (person) to complain to?

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