Luca Maini

Luca Maini is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics within the UNC College of Arts & Sciences. He studies how drug manufacturers compete and how the government regulates prices to get needed drugs into the hands of as many patients as possible.

Luca Mainiphoto by Andrew Russell
February 23rd, 2022

Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: I think every little boy in Italy wants to be a football (soccer) player. I got to switch imaginary careers earlier than most due to incompetence. Beyond that, I think I wanted to be a writer — which I sort of achieved in a very roundabout way.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: Early in my graduate program, I stumbled onto this policy called “external reference pricing” that European governments use to set drug prices. It calculates a benchmark from the prices of other European countries, but everyone uses it, which makes it very circular — I use your price as a reference, and you use my price as a reference. But it didn’t make sense to me that, say, Italy should use the Lithuanian price as a benchmark.

I started studying that policy, which became my dissertation topic. As I learned more about the pharmaceutical market, I kept bumping into other policies and practices that seemed similarly I started studying that policy, which became my dissertation topic. As I learned more about the pharmaceutical market, I kept bumping into other policies and practices that seemed similarly inefficient. I would ask other experts and industry insiders about certain aspects of the market and why they work the way they do — and often received deeply unsatisfying answers. For example, I often ask industry experts how they decide a drug’s price. The most common answer is: “We price what the market will bear,” which is the equivalent to saying, “the earth is round because it doesn’t have corners.”

This was pretty frustrating for me. At some point I decided that if I wanted answers, I would have to find them myself. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past few years.

Luca Maini, his wife, and his dog in Asheville

Maini, his wife, and his “yappy dog” — Obi — hike in the mountains around Asheville.

Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: A common one that I think all academics face is shaping the perception of our work to the audience that reads it. Toward the end of graduate school, I took a short course on writing research papers. One of the early assignments was to write three sentences about a paper: the research question, the answer, and a third sentence explaining why the paper’s question and answer are important or interesting. It sounds easy, but it was really tough, because it essentially asked me to summarize a 50-page draft in less than a paragraph.

Once I completed the task, two things became obvious to me. First, most people who will read my work will only remember a tiny part of it. And second, that I might be able to determine which part. So now I do this for every paper I write. Once I have come up with that core message, I can make sure it’s prominently placed in the paper and repeated over and over again throughout.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Why drugs cost this much.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: I cook! I began out of sheer necessity in college, and then it became my favorite way of relaxing in the evening. I like that it’s physical and keeps my hands occupied, that it has a rapid effort-reward mechanism — unlike my papers, which take years to get published — and you get to eat what you cooked at the end. Plus, I feel like I’m doing right by my heritage.

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