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Biotechnology Industry's Movers and Shakers

Biotechnology: The University-Industrial Complex. Martin Kenney. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1986. 324 pp. $23.95. Divergent economic pressures on university scientists fueled the development of small biotechnology companies and thus the entire fledgling industry. Pressures came in one form as a need to gather support for research; in another, from the realization that molecular biology could make money. In this way, a new academic "industry" world was created. This concept is the thes

By | January 26, 1987

Biotechnology: The University-Industrial Complex. Martin Kenney. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1986. 324 pp. $23.95.

Divergent economic pressures on university scientists fueled the development of small biotechnology companies and thus the entire fledgling industry. Pressures came in one form as a need to gather support for research; in another, from the realization that molecular biology could make money. In this way, a new academic "industry" world was created.

This concept is the thesis of Martin Kenney's Biotechnology. There are many things I like about the book. It expands on this framework and logically chronicles the development of many university-industry relationships and their positive and negative aspects. Tables provide useful information about the financial and personal aspects of these unique linkages.

The author identifies and analyzes the problems raised by such close associations of universities, faculty, students and administrations with industry. He emphasizes accurately the conflicts of academic and commercial interest, both inside and outside of the university.

The book moves from early business developments, to the response of university leaders to entrepreneurial initiatives by their staffs, the role of venture capital, and the increasing role of multinational organizations. There is a separate chapter on agriculture and biotechnology (Kenney is an associate professor of agricultural economics at Ohio State) and it is a relief to see that the author avoids giving credibility to certain over-publicized luddites.

However, there are aspects of this book that I found irritating, perhaps because I don't like scientific errors in a book discussing science or perhaps because I happened to be close to a few of the scenarios Kenney describes. The author is often on shaky ground and even on thin ice when he describes some events or situations in detail, possibly because the text relies too much on secondary sources of information. The references (if they can be called such) are mostly to Genetic Engineering News, Science, company annual reports, etc.; while the quotes often make for dramatic and exciting reading, they are not always reliable.

The book is therefore a somewhat less scholarly treatment than one would have hoped. The lack of first-hand reporting detracts from its validity. It would be unfortunate if Kenney's work, notwithstanding its good intentions and relatively good analyses, is taken as the definitive account of the birth of modern biotechnology.

In addition, Kenney undercuts his effort by trying to dramatize events. Struggles are always "bitter"; raids are always "daring" or "stunning." Robert Fildes' move from Biogen to Cetus is characterized as a daring raid, for example, although as far as I know (and I was at Biogen at the time) Fildes simply left Biogen and joined Cetus.

The overall presentation seems to have fallen between two stools, scholarly and popular. The author has all the elements necessary for a profound and important analysis of biotechnology, but the book falls short of becoming a definitive account.

Davies is in the Department of Biotechnology, Pasteur Institute, 75724 Paris Cédex 15.

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