Defining Progress Down

Athenaeum_in_1830.jpg

The Athenaeum Club, 1830. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

When the great and good convene to ponder the future in historic landmark buildings, there is not always happy news. A group of pharmaceutical executives and government regulators, invoking the name of one of London's most venerable clubs, seem to be ratifying the idea of an "innovation drought," according to the Financial Times.

The Athenaeum Group's proposals seem unexceptionable in themselves: more efficient regulation, more cooperation among pharmaceutical researchers to combat a discouraging trend:

. . . the number of new medicines has steadily dropped, while the cost of bringing each one to market has risen sharply to more than $1bn (£605m, €700m).


Still, it concerns me to read that Thomas Lonngren, chief of the European Union's pharmaceutical regulatory agency,

. . . argues that the biggest barrier to progress is science itself. "We are going into a new era of drug development where it's getting more and more complex. It is generally accepted that we have moved from low- to high-hanging fruit. Mother Nature is saying that she has the cards."
This idea is plausible, but isn't it part of the scientific outlook to question "generally accepted" views, especially in one's own industry? Only four years ago, the Australian physicians Robin Warren and Barry Marshall received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery (beginning with old-fashioned serendipity) of the bacterium Heliobacter pylori and its role in causing stomach ulcers. Is it really conceivable that there are no other mavericks with ideas that will cost less than a billion dollars to develop and test?

In a newspaper interview as late as 1902  the great physicist and technologist Lord Kelvin, an Athenaeum member, told a newspaper interviewer (link courtesy of Wikipedia):

Neither the balloon, nor the aeroplane, nor the gliding machine will be a practical success.
Fortunately the Wright Brothers did not depend on Lord Kelvin for funding, and demonstrated their flyer at Kitty Hawk the following year anyway.

The social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, notes about this episode that "when scientists make erroneous predictions, they almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present."

Too much "realism" about lagging innovation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy with the discouraging message of an ever more resistant Mother Nature. Naysayers to the contrary, there is a place for hype. And there's a lot to be said for the motto of the 1968 student protestors: "Be realistic, demand the impossible."





Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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