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Bland Blueprint for Biotech

Industrial Biotechnology in Europe: Issues for Public Policy. Duncan Davies, ed. Frances Pinter, London, 1986. 156 PP. £22.50. Distributed in North America by Longwood Publishing Group, Dover, NH. $30 HB, $14.50 PB. In 1967 Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber published the instant best seller The American Challenge, which argued that Europe's weakness in high-technology industries could lead to economic stagnation and loss of political self-determination. Since this call for action, it has become

By | April 20, 1987

Industrial Biotechnology in Europe: Issues for Public Policy. Duncan Davies, ed. Frances Pinter, London, 1986. 156 PP. £22.50. Distributed in North America by Longwood Publishing Group, Dover, NH. $30 HB, $14.50 PB.


In 1967 Jean-Jacques Servan Schreiber published the instant best seller The American Challenge, which argued that Europe's weakness in high-technology industries could lead to economic stagnation and loss of political self-determination. Since this call for action, it has become almost de rigueur for policy-makers in the European Economic Community to engage in introspection about their ability to embrace high technology as salvation against economic domination by the United States and Japan.

This volume, which describes the proceedings of a conference in Brussels in November 1985 organized by the European Economic Community Center for European Studies, is a survey of current approaches to commercial biotechnology. It also attempts to outline an action plan to improve European competitiveness.

At first sight the breadth of topics is impressive. On more detailed examination, however, the content, with few exceptions, is bland and uncritical. The need to define a clear strategy for the future of European biotechnology in the public and private sectors emerges as a common theme, but the message is not emphasized with sufficient clarity or forcefulness.

It is difficult to identify the intended readership. Scientists who have even a limited knowledge of biotechnology will find little that is novel in the chapters describing potential applications of biotechnology. The reader is merely provided with lengthy lists of how specific industries will be "revolutionized" by biotechnology in chapters that have greater resemblance to press releases offered by new companies seeking to attract investors than papers on policy analysis.

The need to appeal to the legislative community may be the primary rationale for the bland platitudes and the lack of critical focus in the chapters on the applications of biotechnology. It is difficult, however, to imagine how politicians and policy-makers lacking formal scientific training could respond enthusiastically to chapters replete with unexplained scientific terms and lengthy catalogs of target diseases without accompanying information on the prospects for commercial success.

No discussion of the strategic importance of biotechnology and its role in industrial competitiveness is complete without consideration of the many non-scientific factors that affect investment, commercial product development and, perhaps most important, public opinion and public perceptions of risk. In addressing these issues the book is more successful.

The Reverend Edouard Bone provides a succinct and insightful analysis of the adverse and challenging ethical and social questions raised by biotechnology. Salomon Wald makes a compelling case for reform in European patent law, particularly to reduce the disadvantage that European scientists face in not having the "grace period" of one year to file a patent after publication that their counterparts in the United States possess.

Bernard Dixon, as always, offers lucid commentary on the role of the media in influencing public policy and public opinion. He makes an appropriate plea for more energetic participation by the scientific community in redressing the excesses of the media and the unsupported claims of well-organized social activist groups that are adept in gaining the attention of the media and politicians to spread unwarranted public alarm about biotechnology.

The importance of a unified strategy for Europe in its quest for international competitiveness in biotechnology is reiterated throughout the volume, but the likelihood of success seems remote. The signal for a grand strategy is lost in a background noise of political differences and approaches, ranging from a plea to disband the EEC Common Agricultural Policy to a plan to create a single European agency to regulate pharmaceutical products and a call for moratorium on the release of genetically-engineered organisms into the environment. Many of the more formidable political questions facing the EEC are ignored.

The principal value of this book will probably be to future historians of the origins of industrial biotechnology in illustrating the enormous difficulties that rapid growth of influential new technologies can pose to governments. In a more immediate time frame, it offers an introduction, albeit superficial, to the biotechnology "scene" in Europe. It identifies the numerous supranational and national governmental agencies involved, and offers a lexicon of the endless acronyms that are an inevitable part of modern governance and technology assessment (BAP, BICEPS, COGENE, EVCA, IBPGR and MINE are just a few of the selections from this volume).

The interested reader would do well, however, to consult additional sources of information before embarking on discussions with policy-makers or senior industrial executives in Europe. Much has changed since the warning from Servan Schreiber but it is hard to dispel the notion after reading this volume that things have changed faster in the rest of the world than in Europe.

Poste is vice president, Worldwide Research and Preclinical Development at Smith Kline & French Laboratories, 1500 Spring Garden St., Philadelphia, PA 19101.

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