A day or so ago I quoted William Baumol on entrepreneurs ("More education isn't always a good thing"). Baumol argued that entrepreneurs will invest their energies where they think there will be a payoff, and that the payoffs are not always in productive activities. If the big payoffs are in redistributive efforts or rent seeking then they will invest in redistribution.
Marcia Angell argues that drug companies face incentives that lead them in largely unproductive directions ("The Truth About the Drug Companies").
Tweak an existing formula just enough to get patent coverage
"...The great majority of "new" drugs are not new at all but merely variations of older drugs already on the market. These are called "me-too" drugs. The idea is to grab a share of an established, lucrative market by producing something very similar to a top-selling drug. For instance, we now have six statins (Mevacor, Lipitor, Zocor, Pravachol, Lescol, and the newest, Crestor) on the market to lower cholesterol, all variants of the first. As Dr. Sharon Levine, associate executive director of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group, put it,
"If I'm a manufacturer and I can change one molecule and get another twenty years of patent rights, and convince physicians to prescribe and consumers to demand the next form of Prilosec, or weekly Prozac instead of daily Prozac, just as my patent expires, then why would I be spending money on a lot less certain endeavor, which is looking for brand-new drugs?..."
Invest in lobbying and marketing
"Over the past two decades the pharmaceutical industry has moved very far from its original high purpose of discovering and producing useful new drugs. Now primarily a marketing machine to sell drugs of dubious benefit, this industry uses its wealth and power to co-opt every institution that might stand in its way, including the US Congress, the FDA, academic medical centers, and the medical profession itself. (Most of its marketing efforts are focused on influencing doctors, since they must write the prescriptions.)..."
Economize on internal research funds by licensing taxpayer funded research
"Beginning in 1980, Congress enacted a series of laws designed to speed the translation of tax-supported basic research into useful new products�a process sometimes referred to as "technology transfer." The goal was also to improve the position of American-owned high-tech businesses in world markets.
The most important of these laws is known as the Bayh-Dole Act, after its chief sponsors, Senator Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) and Senator Robert Dole (R-Kans.). Bayh-Dole enabled universities and small businesses to patent discoveries emanating from research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the major distributor of tax dollars for medical research, and then to grant exclusive licenses to drug companies. Until then, taxpayer-financed discoveries were in the public domain, available to any company that wanted to use them. But now universities, where most NIH-sponsored work is carried out, can patent and license their discoveries, and charge royalties. Similar legislation permitted the NIH itself to enter into deals with drug companies that would directly transfer NIH discoveries to industry...
These laws mean that drug companies no longer have to rely on their own research for new drugs, and few of the large ones do. Increasingly, they rely on academia, small biotech startup companies, and the NIH for that. At least a third of drugs marketed by the major drug companies are now licensed from universities or small biotech companies, and these tend to be the most innovative ones..."
Invest in legal resources to extend patents
"In the 1990s, Congress enacted other laws that further increased the patent life of brand-name drugs. Drug companies now employ small armies of lawyers to milk these laws for all they're worth�and they're worth a lot. The result is that the effective patent life of brand-name drugs increased from about eight years in 1980 to about fourteen years in 2000. For a blockbuster�usually defined as a drug with sales of over a billion dollars a year (like Lipitor or Celebrex or Zoloft)�those six years of additional exclusivity are golden. They can add billions of dollars to sales�enough to buy a lot of lawyers and have plenty of change left over. No wonder big pharma will do almost anything to protect exclusive marketing rights..."
I don't know enough about the drug industry to evaluate some of her charges (for example, no difference between statins), and her rhetorical approach is not mine. The idea that the firms will invest resources where the incentives are greatest, and that the incentives might not always direct them to productive investments, sounds plausible.