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Lab Dynamics: Negotiating Science

Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press

A few years ago, Carl was consulting to a small biotech company that we'll call SmallCo. SmallCo was developing a series of compounds as therapies for a rare, life-threatening central-nervous-system disease and needed a partner with deep pockets to keep the program going. SmallCo's management was trying to work out a partnership with a big pharmaceutical company that we'll call Amalgamated Pharmaceuticals.

Amalgamated was interested, but skeptical of these compounds--as they should have been. Amalgamated’s scientists wanted to be able to test the compounds in their own animal models before they would commit to more concrete partnership discussions. A conference call had been scheduled so that Amalgamated scientists and SmallCo’s scientists could discuss the logistics of these tests. The SmallCo scientists were fine with this idea--what could be more reasonable than allowing Amalgamated to test their compounds? They were all pretty upbeat the day of the conference call, anticipating a multimillion-dollar deal that could keep them going for another 12 months at least.

Negotiations in disguise

The way this real-life scenario played out illustrates the main point we want to make in this column: that in the scientific world, discussions about science are often really negotiations in disguise. Being aware of this underlying reality can help you influence the outcome of such discussions. In this case, the parties involved expected the discussion to be a negotiation; after all, the interaction is between two companies, and money is involved. But scientists are constantly involved in discussions that are, in essence, negotiations. The tactics described in this article are useful for any circumstance in which there appears on the surface to be an intractable disagreement.

Because the SmallCo team had dialed in from several different sites, they did not have the advantage of being in the same room. So one of the team members suggested that they all get online with instant messaging so that they could communicate amongst themselves during the teleconference.

The conference call didn’t go as the SmallCo team had planned. “We’ve reviewed that data you sent us," said the senior member of the Amalgamated team at the conversation's outset, "and were not able to extract any useful information from it. It’s not really up to our standards, and we disagree with the mouse model you used. We need to start from scratch using a canine model.”

Amalgamated proposed a series of studies that the SmallCo team believed would take years to complete; by the time the tests were finished, SmallCo might be beyond the reach of Amalgamated's assistance. Moreover, they thought the Amalgamated proposal didn't make scientific sense; in their view, the studies they proposed were not the ones that needed to be done to test SmallCo's compounds.

"What do we do now?”

The lead scientist from SmallCo was at a loss for words. Not only was their science being insulted, but the future of the company was also at risk. He IM’d Carl. “Oh s__t!" he wrote. "What do we do now?” Carl didn’t have clue what to do at that point because the Amalgamated people had all the power in the negotiation--and both parties knew it. SmallCo needed their financial support and horsepower, and although Amalgamated wasn’t the only game in town, SmallCo had spent months getting to this point, and none of the SmallCo folks wanted to walk away empty handed. On the other hand, they had no desire to see Amalgamated embark on a series of studies that would waste at least a year and probably, they thought, would not produce any useful information. A pharmaceutical company, possible treatments for a life-threatening disease, and a promising scientific collaboration all seemed stillborn.

Carl sensed that the team was demoralized and at a loss how to proceed. Like most other human beings, scientists tend to adopt one of two counterproductive behaviors when confronted with seemingly intractable disagreements.

One behavior is to argue: If you think--and especially if you know--that your view is right and theirs is wrong, what seems to make sense is to forcefully present your view while at the same time convincing the other side that their view is wrong. Scientists do this all the time, and this approach can be useful among close colleagues, especially when there's not that much at stake. But when the stakes are high and the sides are as far apart as this, each party in the discussion can end up not really listening to what the other party is saying. While one side speaks, the other is seeking vulnerabilities, not common ground or understanding. The goal is to amass ammunition to fire off when it's their turn to speak. Such discussions often end in impasse, or worse.

The other common approach in cases like this is surrender. This is especially common when one side sees the other as having superior knowledge or experience. You may have done this yourself: You hear an explanation that you really don’t understand. Superficially, the argument sounds so sophisticated and well-reasoned that you just keep quiet for fear that your questions will betray your ignorance. Or--as in the case here--the party with the weaker hand may throw in the towel due to the lack of apparent alternatives.

Dictated by emotion

These two approaches—arguing and giving in--are a subset of a whole series of dysfunctional approaches to negotiation. And whether you know it or not, most scientific discussions are really negotiations. Some are easy and trivial, whereas others, like this one, are hard and important. What these and many other dysfunctional approaches share is that they are dictated by emotion and often result in animosity or disappointment.

The scientific discussions that scientists have the hardest times with are not disputes over established facts: “Planck’s constant is 3.” “No it’s not, it’s 6.626068 × 10 -34 m 2 kg / s.” Rather, they are disagreements about interpretations, defining concepts, and plans. In such discussions, scientific observations are used as supporting data, but the outcome depends upon how those data are interpreted and applied. Put another way, in such a context, data isn't so much a collection of scientific facts but rather weapons to be massaged, shaped, and delivered to win ground.

It's a healthy process generally, and often consensus emerges, either about whose answer is correct or about how to go about finding out. But whether or not consensus is in easy reach, such discussions are negotiations: Two parties with different viewpoints, and possibly different objectives, need to come to an agreement. The question is, how do you progress to a solution that serves the interests of both parties?

A few basic principles

In the event, Carl applied a few basic negotiation principles to keep the discussion from ending prematurely or from turning into an argument about who was right and who was wrong. One tactic to keep a difficult discussion from stalling is to clarify with the other party what standards are being applied. In this case Carl IM’d Ashok, the senior scientist from SmallCo. “Keep asking questions," Carl urged. "Ask them to clarify the scientific reasons for the proposal.” Ashok got the other side engaged in reviewing the reasons for their proposal. Another tactic is to try to introduce as many alternative options as possible--to expand the universe of options. Carl IM’d, “Ask them a bunch of hypothetical questions about shortening their protocol--i.e. 'What if we tested for 3 months instead of 6 months,' etc.”

As the discussion evolved, SmallCo made it clear that they didn’t disagree with Amalgamated's approach fundamentally, but that their objective was to try to find a way to streamline it so that both parties could get an answer as soon as possible. By asking questions, the SmallCo scientists were able to engage Amalgamated in helping to solve the problem. The discussion never became an argument over whose approach was right, and neither side withdrew in anger or despair. By engaging the substance of Amalgamated's approach in a dispassionate way rather than criticizing it or dwelling on the intractability of the dilemma, SmallCo defused a potentially heated discussion and created a collaborative atmosphere.

By the end of the conference call, the scientists from Amalgamated had suggested several modifications to their original proposal that the SmallCo team felt would satisfy their need for a shorter turn around time for the experiments. And Amalgamated's approach had been modified to the point where the SmallCo scientists no longer thought it was a waste of time.

People tend to think of negotiations as contests, and some are. (Haggling over the price of a car is a good example of a negotiation that is a contest, no matter how hard the salesman tries to convince you that his real goal is to form a “long-term relationship” with you!) But approaching a scientific discussion in a confrontational or argumentative manner, or conceding defeat when you are at a loss for words or ideas, will limit your effectiveness, hamper your productivity, and undermine your scientific career.

Although the substance of the discussion may be about science, the way you frame your approach and how you manage your interactions with the other party are all about being a skillful and collaborative negotiator. Learn to use the principles of collaborative negotiation to manage or guide your scientific discussions. You will be surprised how effective this can be.

Carl M. Cohen is Chief Operating Officer of Biovest International, and President of Science Management Associates. Suzanne L. Cohen is a Certified Group Psychotherapist and a Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Carl and Suzanne are co-authors of the book Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2005.

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