Building on original breakthroughs
Sir, John Kay (“Innovation is not about wearing a white coat”, December 16) rightly points out that innovation has less to do with “eureka” revolutionary breakthroughs and more to do with mundane tweaks that mould existing technology into products and services that consumers actually want. He also makes the point that public investments into research and development – inputs – don’t necessarily yield useful innovations at the other end – outputs. This is because governments are rarely well placed to predict what consumers will want in future.
This is also true of the pharmaceutical sector, which is frequently criticised for not coming up with enough “breakthrough” drugs. Such accusations totally misunderstand the process of innovation. Researchers rarely work in a vacuum, but build on knowledge that already exists. The first antihistamines had some useful therapeutic qualities, but were plagued by side-effects. Over time, researchers built on this original breakthrough to develop myriad improvements that have banished these side-effects. Similarly, the original beta-blocker has since developed into at least eight different drugs, each one closely matching the specific needs of different patients.
It is the competitive process – and good old trial and error – that underpins such innovation. Long may it continue!
Alec van Gelder and Philip Stevens,
International Policy Network,
London EC4, UK