The Marginal Revolution Theory of Innovation

A FDA panel voted against approving MDMA (ecstasy) for post-traumatic stress disorder. Putting aside the specifics of the case, I was vexed by this statement on innovation from one of the experts voting no:

“I absolutely agree that we need new and better treatments for PTSD,” said Paul Holtzheimer, deputy director for research at the National Center for PTSD, a panelist who voted no on the question of whether the benefits of MDMA-therapy outweighed the risks.

“However, I also note that premature introduction of a treatment can actually stifle development, stifle implementation and lead to premature adoption of treatments that are either not completely known to be safe, not fully effective or not being used at their optimal efficacy,” he added.

A textbook example of making the perfect the enemy of the good. But the problem is even worse. Holtzheimer seems to think that treatments spring from the lab perfectly formed like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus. Indeed, Holtzheimer suggests that treatments should be kept in the lab until they are perfect. News flash: there are no perfect treatments–no drug or device in use today is completely known to be safe, fully effective, and used at its optimal efficacy. Not one. If we follow Holtzheimer’s counsel, we will never approve a new drug.

Innovation is a dynamic process; success rarely comes on the first attempt. The key to innovation is continuous refinement and improvement. A firm with sales gains greater resources to invest in further research and development. Additionally, they benefit from customer feedback, which provides valuable insights for enhancing their products and processes. Learning by doing requires doing. But if imperfect treatments are never approved, scientists often don’t return to the lab to refine and improve them. Instead, the project dies. Thus, when considering innovation today, it’s essential to think about not only the current state of technology but also about the entire trajectory of development. A treatment that’s marginally better today may be much better tomorrow.

Small steps toward a much better world.

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