7.2 Changing rhythms of economic growth
Taking a more global view, David Edgerton, a historian of technology, argues that the rhythms of economic growth have varied globally in recent decades, including economic contraction in large parts of the world, as in the collapse of the economies of the former Soviet bloc after 1989 and the catastrophic reduction in income of the very poorest in sub-Saharan Africa during the last two decades of the past century (Edgerton, 2008, pp. 206–9).
Although there are clearly other contributory factors at play here (the political collapse of the Soviet bloc and the terrible impact of HIV/AIDS in Africa, respectively, in these examples) and there is plenty of room for debate around these issues, it seems that a simple story of technological innovation leading to increasing economic growth is not the whole story and that, at the very least, we need to be aware that this is not always so.
In a similar vein, others have argued that, in some areas, the kind of industries we have created are no longer capable of delivering meaningful innovation either at the levels they have in the past or, and even more significantly, at the levels needed to respond to important challenges facing humanity. Such arguments have been particularly strongly made about the pharmaceutical industry. Developing new drugs is very expensive and despite large investments in genomics and proteomics (the study of proteins), there appears to have been a decline in the production of genuinely novel drugs. The problem is particularly acute for antibiotics. As bacteria increasingly become resistant to ‘traditional’ antibiotics like penicillin (‘traditional’ in the sense that penicillin was discovered in the 1940s, and others shortly after, and whose use rapidly spread), there is a growing risk of untreatable, and potentially fatal, infections.
A problem less publicly articulated by the pharmaceutical companies is that antibiotics are less profitable than other forms of drugs; a good antibiotic would only need to be used for short periods, resistant bacteria are still relatively rare (and hence the market for new, expensive antibiotics is small) and are mainly in the developing world (The Economist, 2011). Much of pharmaceutical companies’ current research aims not to address issues such as antibiotics, but to patent minor modifications to existing drugs. Bringing these to market is made easier by regulatory requirements internationally that only require a drug to be demonstrably more effective than a placebo, rather than more effective than an existing therapy. These modifications are then marketed heavily to doctors, and few genuinely novel drugs are emerging (Light and Lexchin, 2012). Such critics argue, in effect, that the pharmaceutical industry has evolved to try to maximise the value of their intellectual property and that most of its ‘innovative’ activity has little or no benefit to patients.