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2.4.5 Biotechnology and information/communication technology

A number of points may be made in addressing this complex and controversial topic.

There is no doubt that biotechnology, as an interrelated set of technologies, is having, and will continue to have, a pervasive effect on a large number of industrial sectors. It is perhaps best to analyse biotechnology as a set of process technologies with application to a large number of product areas. The process technologies include classical methods of selection, recombinant DNA techniques, cell fusion, tissue culture, protein engineering, and bioprocessing. Combinations of these technologies may be applied to the research and development of a large number of products. Examples referred to in this chapter include pharmaceuticals (such as insulin, interferon, and vaccines), industrial chemicals (such as enzymes, other proteins, and ethanol), and new plant varieties.

One implication of the pervasive effects of biotechnology is that important economies of scope may be reaped. In other words, investment in the capabilities and assets necessary to create an effective biotechnology system may be rewarded by high rates of return resulting from the widespread applicability of biotechnology. This possibility emerged clearly from the case study of Cuba, where the capabilities and assets built up in CIB and later CIGB were being applied across a wide range of areas, all of which contributed directly to Cuban development goals and priorities.

For the reason mentioned in the last paragraph, there would appear to be ample justification for establishing biotechnology programmes in developing countries. However, careful attention will have to be paid to the particular circumstances of each country in order to understand the limitations and constraints confronting any such programme (as discussed in Section 2.3).

Notwithstanding this general pervasiveness of biotechnology, there are a number of important differences between biotechnology and information/communication technology (ICT). For example, the link between process technology, product technology, and product characteristics is much closer for ICT than in biotechnology. Furthermore, ICT displays much stronger tendencies towards integration. For instance, the convergence of computing and communication technologies as a result of the digital 'common currency' has meant that ICT products tend relatively easily to become part of broader integrated systems. An example is the integration of personal computers, minicomputers, mainframes, robots, computer-controlled machinery, and local and even national communication systems into a broader technological system. The same integrative tendencies are not apparent for biotechnology.

At the same time there is an important process of convergence between biotechnology and ICT. On the one hand ICT is having a significant impact on the development of biotechnology process and product technologies. Examples are the use of microprocessors and computers in automated controls for bioreactors and DNA synthesizers, and in other areas such as sequencing. On the other hand, biotechnology is beginning to have an effect on ICT, although this effect is not yet as great as the other way round. For instance, one area of application for protein engineering is in the field of biosensors and biochips where integrated circuit technology is fused with protein engineering technology.

It is worth stressing that the current entry barriers into biotechnology are significantly lower than those into ICT, a point that was stressed earlier. Very few developing countries will be able to become significant producers of ICT products such as semiconductors, smaller computers, and communications products, including optical fibre or PBXs, although these types of products are being produced by countries such as the Republic of Korea, India, and Brazil. Most developing countries will be users rather than producers of ICTs. However, many more developing countries will be able to make a successful entry into the field of biotechnology. The qualifications surrounding the possibility for successful entry were examined in more detail in Section 2.4.3. From a policy point of view, therefore, whether the pervasiveness of ICT is greater than that of biotechnology is of little significance. Rather, the policy question ultimately boils down to an analysis of the social returns that may be derived from investing in a biotechnology-creating system, given the circumstances and constraints of the country concerned.

2.5 Recent additions to the literature

There have been many notable contributions recently to the field of biotechnology. This section will mention briefly a few recent studies that augment our current understanding of the generation, diffusion, and policy in the area of biotechnology.

Two recent books provide a panoramic overview of areas of application of biotechnology with particular relevance for Third World countries. These are Sasson's (1988) Biotechnologies and Development and Walgate's (1990) Miracle or Menace? Biotechnology and the Third World. Both of these books are concerned primarily with the technical development of biotechnology, with special reference to the Third World. They are extremely useful for those wishing to keep abreast of some of the huge quantity of biotechnology-related research that is being done. However, since this research is an ongoing phenomenon, it is necessary to be kept informed about current research developments. To facilitate this, two publications are extremely helpful. The first is UNIDO's (various) Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering Monitor, which tracks events in the field of biotechnology in both rich and poor countries. The second is the Biotechnology and Development Monitor, published jointly by the Dutch Government and the University of Amsterdam, which provides current information on scientific and technical developments, companies, regional developments in the Third World, and activities of international organizations. Finally, The Biotechnology Revolution? (Fransman et al., forthcoming) is a reader with contributions examining the major areas of science and technology in biotechnology, their various areas of application, and their implications.

Two studies of particular relevance to this chapter should also be mentioned. The first is Christopher Freeman's short chapter on the time-scale for the diffusion of biotechnology, published in Biotechnology: Economic and Wider Impacts (OECD, 1989). Freeman argues that

For a new technological system to have major effects on the economy as a whole it should satisfy the following conditions:

i. A new range of products accompanied by an improvement in the technical characteristics of many products and processes....

ii. A reduction in costs of many products and services....

iii. Social and political acceptability....

iv. Environmental acceptability....

v. Pervasive effects throughout the economic system.

(pp. 49-50)

Regarding the 'revolutionary' nature of biotechnology (or in the terminology used by Freeman and Perez (1988), whether or not biotechnology constitutes a new 'technoeconomic paradigm'), Freeman is cautious:

Whether [biotechnology] is such an important trajectory that it will ultimately come to affect management decision-making in most branches of the economy remains an open question. The new biotechnology has undoubtedly led to enormous excitement in the research community and many new companies were established with venture capital to pursue R&D. This 'research explosion' was without parallel. Both the pervasiveness of a new trajectory or technical system depends on the range of profitable opportunities for exploitation. Until recently, despite its undoubted importance for the future, biotechnology had led to profitable innovations in only a relatively small number of applications in a few sectors and in a few countries. In Schumpeter's model, the profits realised by innovators are the decisive impulse to surges of growth, acting as a signal to the swarms of imitators. Biotechnology is a very long way from this mature stage and the main interest is in when it will enter the 'swarming' phase and on what scale.
(ibid, p. 49)

This conclusion is in line with that of this chapter.

Also relevant to this chapter is the research programme developed under the auspices of the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study (IFIAS) and the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Nairobi on the international diffusion of biotechnology. Of particular interest is the 'SWOT methodology' (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) developed under this programme for the formation of policies for the adoption and development of biotechnology in Third World countries. See Clark and Juma (1990) for further details.

This brief discussion addresses only some of the more important contributions that should be added to the survey in this chapter.

2.6 Towards a general research agenda

2.6.1 Evolution of biotechnology in industrialized countries
2.6.2 Biotechnology policies in third world countries
2.6.3 Socioeconomic effects of biotechnology

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.


In attempting to understand this new field I have received generous assistance from a large number of people, all of whom cannot be mentioned here. Nevertheless mention must be made of the help given by the following, none of whom bear any responsibility for the ideas and assertions contained in this chapter. The members of the United Nations University, Institute for New Technologies (UNU/INTECH) Feasibility Study, namely Charles Cooper, Jeffrey James, and Luc Soete, were particularly helpful in serving as a sounding board to clarify ideas and in providing conceptual and empirical input. Wilma Coenegrachts was invaluable as an administrator and source of efficiency and support. Edward Yoxen, of Manchester University, and Gerd Junne and Annemieke Roobeek of Amsterdam University, were extremely generous, not only in providing an introduction to the literature, but also in providing continuous guidance and support. Margaret Sharp of the Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex University, and Wendy Faulkner, of Stirling University, similarly provided valuable help. Mark Cantley of the European Community's Concentration Unit for Biotechnology in Europe (CUBE) in Brussels was an important source of ideas, contacts, and literature, and his colleague Ken Sargeant also gave useful advice. Wafa Kamel, in charge of UNIDO's initiative with the new International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), and his colleagues Ricardo Castro-Gonzales and Dianne Brown, provided a helpful insight into UNIDO's activities as did David McConnell. Ajit Bhalla and Susumu Watanabe of the Technology and Employment Branch of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva shared with me their growing interest in the area of biotechnology. Vinson Oviatt, at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, provided information about the WHO's biotechnology-related programmes.

In the United States Alfred Hellman, biotechnology adviser to the U.S. Department of Commerce, was a particularly important source of stimulation and information. I am especially grateful to him for having arranged numerous meetings for me in Washington, D.C. Judy Kosovich and Gary Ellis of the Office of Technology Assessment also provided useful information, while Charles Banbrook of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences opened my eyes to a number of important biotechnology issues in the area of agriculture. Chester Dickerson of Monsanto was particularly helpful in giving me an insight into the perspective of one of the largest corporations, heavily committed to biotechnology. Tony Robbins made me aware of the concerns of some members of the U.S. Congress with the need to regulate biotechnology. At Cornell University, Fred Buttel and Tad Cowan stimulated me with their ideas and together with Loren Tauir gave me an insight into the important work being undertaken on biotechnology from a social science perspective at the University. Martin Alexander, also of Cornell University, unravelled with great clarity the complex issues surrounding the questions of regulation, risk-assessment, and the deliberate release of genetically engineered organisms and vectors.

In the United Kingdom, Geoff Potter of the Biotechnology Directorate of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) gave me an excellent overview of the difficulties of policy-making in the science and university side of biotechnology while Roy Dietz of the Biotechnology Unit in the Department of Trade and Industry did likewise in the area of national policy-making in biotechnology. Gerard Fairtlough, managing director of Celltech, shared with me not only his detailed knowledge of the difficulties facing new biotechnology firms but also his broader perspective on appropriate ways of conceptualizing the biotechnology industry and its science base. Bruce Haddock of Bioscot gave me an early insight into the nature of new and small biotechnology firms that have 'spun off from university research. Jonathan Bard of the Medical Research Council's Cytology Laboratory in Edinburgh helped me to understand some of the implications of biotechnology in medical research. Richard Wakeford and Sabine Brandon-Cross of the British Library's European Biotechnology Information Project made me understand how essential a reliable and complete source of information is to scientists and social scientists alike. Finally, I am extremely grateful to Dr. Luis Herrera and all his colleagues involved in Cuban biotechnology for their extremely generous hospitality and rare insight that they gave me into their country's impressive performance. Some of these insights, I hope, are accurately reflected in the case study section on Cuban biotechnology.

To all these people, and others not mentioned here, I am indebted for having expanded my horizon by giving me insights and information of various kinds to help me to understand a little better this evolving field of biotechnology. To repeat, none of them is responsible for the ideas and contents of this chapter.


1. This discussion draws on the useful paper by Teece (1986).

2. This part of the survey is based largely on an interview with a senior Monsanto executive held in Washington, D.C. in July 1986.

3. Later in this survey we will look at the implications of sugar-free sweeteners for international trade patterns and Third World countries. See Ruivenkamp (1986) and Bijman et al. (1986).

4. 'University-Industry Cooperation in Biotechnology' an investigation by the Science and Technology Sub-Committee of the Investigations and Oversight Committee, U.S. Congress, June 1982 (publication number 225-6275). The issue of university-industry links and their effects in the case of biotechnology is treated in more detail in Kenney (1986).

5. For further details on Monsanto see Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. l, September 1989, pp. 19-20.

6. Further details on Genentech are given in Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 3, June 1990, pp. 3-5.

7. It should be noted that this section is not self-contained in that the discussions in a number of other parts of this survey have a strong bearing on Third World countries.


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