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close this bookTechnology and Innovation in the International Economy (UNU, 1994, 239 pages)
close this folder2. Biotechnology: Generation, diffusion, and policy
close this folder2.6 Towards a general research agenda
View the document(introductory text...)
View the document2.6.1 Evolution of biotechnology in industrialized countries
View the document2.6.2 Biotechnology policies in third world countries
View the document2.6.3 Socioeconomic effects of biotechnology

(introductory text...)

While it is not appropriate here to attempt to spell out a detailed research agenda for the biotechnology area, it is possible, on the basis of the information discussed in this chapter, to identify three broad themes that might form part of such an agenda.

2.6.1 Evolution of biotechnology in industrialized countries

Research addressing the evolution of biotechnology in the advanced industrialized countries could be focused on three topics:

1. The science and technologies upon which biotechnology is based;
2. Biotechnology-related companies (small and large); and
3. Government policies.

It is assumed that a desirable research programme on biotechnology would be concerned both with the determinants of the major scientific and technological changes in the biotechnology field as well as with their socioeconomic effects. In order to analyse these determinants it is necessary to understand the overall trends in the evolving science and technology. While there is a huge literature reporting developments in the science and technology, there are far fewer attempts to identify the major trends. To take an example discussed earlier, what are the implications of current trends in bioprocessing for minimum firm size? The answer to this question has important consequences for the barriers to entry into biotechnology.

Closely related to the need to understand the continuing evolution of the science and technology is the need to analyse biotechnology-related developments in the major companies, both large and small, in the advanced industrialized countries. These companies are both the 'carriers' and the developers of the new technologies. The structure of their industry and their activities, both nationally and internationally, will have important implications for the future of biotechnology in the industrialized countries as well as the Third World. For example, the failure of Genentech, by far the largest of the American new biotechnology firms, to develop its complementary assets sufficiently, as signalled by its takeover by Hoffman La Roche, is a significant indication of a tendency towards increased concentration in the biotechnology sector. This has important consequences for entry into this sector and for the location of future technical change. It also suggests that Third World countries are increasingly likely to be dealing with larger rather than smaller companies in their private dealings in the field of biotechnology. A further example is the increasing use of strategic alliances in marketing, production, clinical trials, and, to a lesser extent, research by biotechnology-related companies in the advanced industrialized countries. These alliances, presenting both opportunities as well as, in some instances, threats, have important implications for Third World countries.

Finally, it is also necessary to analyse government policies, including the role of universities, in the major industrialized countries. Government policies and programmes will influence the evolution of science and technology in the biotechnology field and will have an effect on the relative international competitiveness of these countries. An example is the area of protein engineering, which is likely to become increasingly important as a new biotechnology, and which is being funkier developed in important programmes in countries such as Japan and Britain. The policies and programmes of governments in industrialized countries will also present opportunities and threats for Third World countries. A particularly important question relates to the evolving role of universities in the future biotechnology. Will biotechnology in the future continue to be university based to the extent that it has been or will trends in both product and process innovation mean that, as in some areas of telecommunications, information technology, and microelectronics, the locus of innovation will move increasingly into private companies? This is an extremely important question for Third World countries in view of the comparatively easy access that they have to universities in the industrialized countries. It also relates closely to the more general issue of barriers to entry into biotechnology.

2.6.2 Biotechnology policies in third world countries

A series of major questions relates to the development in Third World countries of 'biotechnology systems' that will facilitate the generation and particularly the application of biotechnology. How should such a system be structured in view of the country's existing strengths and weaknesses? What roles should be played by large and small private companies, by universities, and by government programmes? What kinds of interactions should take place with foreign companies and foreign biotechnology systems? These are very large questions requiring detailed analyses that go beyond the general objectives of the conclusion to this chapter. But the usefulness of envisaging from the outset the development of a biotechnology system is worth stressing. Such a conceptualization focuses attention on the kinds of organizational structures that are required and on the interactions within and between organizations that are necessary. These are essential adjuncts to any study of the generation and application of biotechnology.

It is also worth noting that although a great deal of (mainly descriptive) literature exists on the experience of Third World countries with biotechnology, the appropriate approaches and methodologies required to assess the effectiveness of the generation and application of biotechnology in these countries are still lacking. The development of such approaches and methodologies must inevitably constitute a crucial part of any coherent research programme on biotechnology and its implications for the Third World. At the same time interest in the application of biotechnology must also imply concern with the complex issues of regulation.

2.6.3 Socioeconomic effects of biotechnology

One of the notable facts to emerge from this chapter is the extreme scarcity of rigorous studies analysing the economic and social effects of biotechnology in advanced industrialized and Third World countries. While studies on the use of biotechnology in various applications and countries abound, few good studies examine the effects of biotechnology. This is due in part to the complexities inherent in any rigorous study of effects, some of which, such as the need for economy-wide studies which take account of the interactions and interdependencies, have been mentioned in this chapter. Again the task that lies ahead is in significant measure one of refining approaches and methodologies. But just as an important start has been made in related areas, such as attempts to analyse the effects of the Green Revolution, so a similar start will have to be made for biotechnology.

It has become commonplace to tout biotechnology, together with information and communication technologies and new materials, as the 'new technologies' that individually and collectively will have profound consequences for our economy and society. However, this chapter has shown that we still have a long way to go before we can be satisfied that we have a reasonably robust understanding of the causes of the major scientific and technological changes in the biotechnology field as well as with their socioeconomic effects.

Furthermore, these are still early days in the development of biotechnology. It is, after all, worth reminding ourselves that it was only in the mid-1970s that the major new biotechnologies were invented. The history of all other major scientific and technological change cautions us to expect a long time-lag before major consequences occur, if indeed they are to occur. One of the tasks of the UNU/INTECH research programme, therefore, will be to analyse in 'real time' the causes and effects of biotechnology as they evolve.