We Can Follow Through On Our Own After Charlottesville

[Editor’s Note: Steve Graham of Fenwick & West is one of biotech’s leading corporate attorneys. His book, “Invisible Ink: Navigating racism in corporate America” was published in April.]

I spent my first few years of elementary school in segregated schools.  Beaches were segregated.  The drinking fountains and restrooms were labeled.  At movie theatres, colored people were directed to the balcony.  At the amusement park, the sign said don’t even think about coming in.

Fifty years later, the signs are down, but has the heart of our country changed fundamentally?  I would like to think so, but sometimes I’m not so sure.  Racism and bias have become less loud, more polite.  We take that as progress and perhaps it is.  But that’s not good enough.

Stephen Graham, co-chair of Fenwick & West’s Life Sciences Practice

Modern racism is a virus that has grown clever at avoiding detection, often operating without articulation and beneath awareness, lulling us into a false sense that all is well.  I have had the good fortune to have spent the majority of my career closely associated with the biotech industry, working side-by-side with brilliant individuals more interested in creating therapies that improve quality of life for people of all races and geographies and cultures than worrying about the color of my skin.  Anyone sharing similar good fortune risks being further lulled into the false sense that nothing sinister lurks beneath the surface of our social fabric.

When I was a kid, 12 or so, I remember seeing a news program on TV.  I was fascinated by the mother who appeared on the show.  She was white.  She was with her two small children.  She was teaching them.  Giving them a lesson.  Showing them the way.  A lesson parents and others have been teaching children in America for hundreds of years.  She asked the children, “Who do we hate?”  As I recall, the children weren’t entirely sure, so she would answer for them, “Niggers and Jews.”  She then repeated the call and response.  I was mystified.  I didn’t understand.  I didn’t know why anyone would want to teach hate.  Call me crazy, but I still don’t.

Many of us see Charlottesville and its aftermath, and we are shocked and saddened.  But we find some measure of solace by telling ourselves that’s not us.  We have no part.  These are not things we do.  These are not people we know.  But I wonder how many of us can rightly take comfort in that conclusion.  Not those of us who have stood silent in the face of bigoted remarks by family, colleagues and friends.  Not those of us who have failed to even acknowledge their own bias.  Not those of us who have ignored racism in the pursuit of profit.  The cumulative effect of these “minor” transgressions across our society lead us to Charlottesville.  It is all connected.  If we are not working to end bias, we are working to preserve it.

Charlottesville doesn’t anger me.  I have long ceased to be angered by racism.  I feel sadness, but I don’t feel anger.  And perhaps one reason why is that I continue to be optimistic about our future, even while being terrified and sickened by the present.  It will take leadership, but it is leadership we all can provide.  Each of us, in our own way.  We don’t need our elected officials or anyone else to tell us how to care, how to show courage in standing up to what is wrong, how to show humility and empathy.  We can follow through on our own.  And, in time, the cumulative effect of all of these small acts of leadership will lead us to a better place. We will get there.

Stephen Graham is co-chair of Fenwick & West’s Life Sciences Practice and is managing partner of the firm’s Seattle office. His book, “Invisible Ink: Navigating racism in corporate America” was published in April.


At What Price a Seat at the Table?

[Editor’s Note: This editorial was co-authored by Steve Holtzman, CEO of Decibel Therapeutics, and Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics in the aftermath of violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.]

Steve Holtzman, CEO, Decibel Therapeutics

FACT 1: The overwhelming majority of the men and women in the biopharmaceutical industry, scientists and non-scientists alike, have been drawn to their profession by the noble mission of creating new medicines to address unmet human needs. They place human health and well-being—regardless of class, ethnicity, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, country of national origin—as among the highest of goals to be sought, pursued, and supported by a democratic nation, a free market and society at large.

FACT 2: A high proportion of the men and women in the biopharmaceutical industry, scientists, and non-scientists alike, are either immigrants themselves, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The United States leads the world in the discovery and development of important new medicines. This is due to, in no small measure, our country welcoming and providing opportunities to immigrants.

FACT 3: The ability of the biopharmaceutical industry to create new medicines is grounded in the power of the scientific method, itself grounded in rational discourse, to elucidate the molecular basis of disease and, based thereon, discover, and develop novel therapeutic approaches.

Jeremy Levin, CEO, Ovid Therapeutics

Today our industry is in the midst of a public dialogue permeated by a media and social discourse full of refutable alternatives or refutable “facts”. Unless we address these inaccuracies frontally we risk undermining the values and core basis of our industry. Some of these inaccuracies include:

ALTERNATIVE “FACT” 1: The current administration’s assault on the accessibility of health care to all, and, in particular, its efforts to defund women’s reproductive healthcare services, are consistent with the foundational motivation of the men and women of the biopharmaceutical industry. —This is not true and should be refuted.

ALTERNATIVE “FACT” 2: The current administration’s assault on immigration is consistent with the seminal role that immigrants have played in the creation and flourishing of the biopharmaceutical industry. —This is not true and should be refuted.

ALTERNATIVE “FACT” 3: The current administration’s anti-science rhetoric and positions on climate change, environmental safety, and vaccines are consistent with the biopharmaceutical industry’s grounding commitment to rational scientific discourse. —This is not true and should be refuted


It should not have required the President to demonstrate a fundamental incapacity to rapidly and forcefully condemn neo-Nazism, antisemitism, racism, and white supremacism for our industry leadership, in the form of Ken Frazier, effectively to say, “No. Enough. This is too high a price to pay for a seat at the table.”


The fundamental conflict between the current administration and the founding bases and tenets of the biopharmaceutical industry has been increasingly evident since the President’s election and has been reified in his high-level appointments, regulatory actions, legislative agenda, and purging of qualified scientists from the federal payroll. Yet, biopharmaceutical executives have been largely silent about this fundamental conflict.

The reason for this silence is manifest. Several of the industry’s economic interests are dependent on federal policy and regulation. We have a President who values loyalty above all and excoriates and attempts to punish anyone who seeks to oppose him, irrespective of political affiliation or contribution to the nation and economy. Speaking out could put drug pricing, corporate taxation, and the repatriation of trapped off-shore cash at risk of Presidential retribution. –And, so we, the leaders of our industry, have largely chosen to “save our chits”

But, at what cost to the industry’s soul? At what point does the desire to retain a seat at the table become appeasement?

In our modern society, major industry leaders have the privilege, but also the responsibility, to further the fabric of a richer, more just and equitable society. This responsibility is especially acute for the leadership of an industry whose raison d’êtreis the health and well-being of all.

Ours is an industry critical to the nation, its economy, and its social fabric. We, its leaders, have the responsibility to represent the economic interests of our shareholders and do so by investing in and finding groundbreaking medicines to treat crippling disease. But, to do that most effectively, we have an equal responsibility to understand and value all who can benefit from the medicines we seek to create—especially those most vulnerable. At the same time, we need to ensure we motivate and represent our dedicated colleagues who devote their lives to finding these medicines with the sole mission of improving the lives of patients. Their work is based on the scientific method, which depends on rational discourse and dialogue. We must defend this vigorously.

Events since January 20th have grown increasingly perilous.  If we, as leaders of the biopharmaceutical industry, are to meet our responsibilities to all our stakeholders and society at large, the time is already long past for us to stand up for the foundational values of our beloved industry.

“If not us, who? If not now, when?”



                                         Steven H. Holtzman                                      Jeremy M. Levin

                                         President and CEO                                       Chairman and CEO

                                         Decibel Therapeutics                                   Ovid Therapeutics