Regulation Destroys Progress, and Medicine is the Greatest Example

One subtle way in which increased regulation and other government intervention dampens progress - quite apart from raising costs, reducing competitive development, and making it harder for now technologies to be introduced - is by encouraging the formation of research communities with no accountability for progress, and no need to define and strike out for goals.

We humans are all backsliding apes at core; the only thing that keeps us honest and working hard is competition in the process of earning a living by building new and better things. Finding a niche where you don't have to stretch, work hard at ambitious goals, and make real progress - that's comfort for many.

You don't have to look too far in this world today to see just how pathetic progress in medical technology has been in comparison to other, much less regulated fields of endeavor. Over the decades, opportunity has been wasted on a grand scale. There are no excuses, no rationalizations. Medicine is just engineering, no special cases here. Other branches of engineering, just as technically challenging, have raced ahead while medical progress dawdled by comparison.

During the time Andrew S. Grovespent at Intel, the computer chip company he co-founded, the number of transistors on a chip went from about 1,000 to almost 10 billion. Over that same period, the standard treatment for Parkinson's disease went from L-dopa to . . . L-dopa.


Grove (who beat prostate cancer 12 years ago and now suffers from Parkinson's) thinks there is something deeply wrong with this picture, and he is letting the pharmaceutical industry, the National Institutes of Health and academic biomedicine have it. Like an increasing number of critics who are fed up with biomedical research that lets paralyzed rats (but not people) walk again, that cures mouse (but not human) cancer and that lifts the fog of the rodent version of Alzheimer's but not people's, he is taking aim at what more and more critics see as a broken system.

On Sunday afternoon, Grove is unleashing a scathing critique of the nation's biomedical establishment. In a speech at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, he challenges big pharma companies, many of which haven't had an important new compound approved in ages, and academic researchers who are content with getting NIH grants and publishing research papers with little regard to whether their work leads to something that can alleviate disease, to change their ways.

I noticed the symptoms of this malaise in a funding announcement not so long ago.

This might as well be language lifted from a mythical government release on the Full Employment Act for Gerontologists. It's all so grey and tired - rescue the scientists, pay the scientists, help the scientists. Note the utter absence of any sort of discussion of goals or results. What are these scientists actually doing? What is the value of it? Where are they going? When will they get there? What does it mean to me?

Does anyone really think that the computing industry would have achieved its growth if there was an FDA of computers, forcing every new development through billion dollar testing over a decade, stifling innovation under a weight of red tape and forbiddance?

The real obstacles to developing medical technologies to repair the cellular damage that is aging are not technical. No. They're all to do with the rules people make while trying to steer the lives of others. Government, representing centralized, forceful control over other people, has always led to broken systems; there is no substitute for freedom and competition if you want things done, done fast and done well.

The main obstacle to a future of far longer, healthier lives is not the technology. It's those people who are gleefully burning the boat that could get us there.

Very well said, but there's a counterargument to be made that you don't address here (you might have in the past and I missed it).

Badly made computers and buggy software generally don't kill people (it happens, but it's rare). Badly made drugs do. Obviously there would be enormous market and legal consequences for any drug maker that put out poison, but a sizeable number of people could be dead or injured before there were any ramifications for the company. Eliminating government intervention in this area is going to be a hard sell because so many buy into the idea that government regulation, while it may slow progress, at least keeps them safe from snake oil.

I do agree that regulation retards progress in this area, though, and I'd much rather see FDA compliance/certification as voluntary, so the consumer could decide if it was important enough to them.

(Long-time reader and enjoyer of the blog, de-lurking just to share the thought)

Posted by: Chris Barton at November 7th, 2007 8:11 AM

"Badly made drugs do. Obviously there would be enormous market and legal consequences for any drug maker that put out poison, but a sizeable number of people could be dead or injured before there were any ramifications for the company."

To be fair, you also need to look at the other side; how many people die or suffer because drugs are not available to them for years (if ever) because they are in the process of being approved.

If a new drug could save 20,000 lives/year but it is stopped by the FDA because it might harm 1,000/year, is that good or bad? Or what if it takes 5 years to approve that drug?

We have this bias against doing active damage, but that too often makes us forget about all the passive damage.

I'd much rather that we had an imperfect drug out now with caveats and started developing the improved next version asap than wait for the perfect one with minor side effects and let people suffer and die in the meantime.

Posted by: Michael G.R. at November 7th, 2007 10:17 AM

It seems to me that while there is now a growing market for "medical tourism" to go to places that have much cheaper costs plus drugs that may not be legal in the "tourist's" home country, there should likewise be countries that are havens of regulation-free drug development.

I suppose that if a company did develop a profitable drug this way, they would then still be forced to jump through the various hoops to be allowed to sell it in the major markets.

Posted by: Jim Thomason at November 7th, 2007 11:26 PM

The main problem isn't that they're afraid of releasing bad cures. It's that finding cures, period, is the last thing on their minds. There is no penalty for spinning their gears, and they do so eternally and openly. No matter how many pointless experiments they conduct or blind shots in the dark they take, they will always be in line for another grant.

I heard a representative of the NIH speak last year about the funding process for research into autoimmune disorders. (He was speaking at a conference held by the research foundation that found my cure, and he was explaining in so many words why the foundation didn't get any funding.) What he said was almost word for word what Reason quoted a few posts back--support scientists, build scientific careers, and conspicuous absence of any mention of finding cures or understanding disease processes. It's just not on their map.

Posted by: shegeek at November 8th, 2007 12:19 AM

What is needed now is to improve the way we search for and validate discoveries.We need faster ways to run thru all the pitfalls and conceivable drawbacks to new workable treatment methods.

Posted by: Bode Bliss at November 12th, 2007 1:30 AM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.