2.2.5 The role of government
There has been a good deal of interest in the role of public policy in biotechnology. In some cases, such as the report by the U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (1984), this has resulted from a concern with issues of international competitiveness.
There are a number of good descriptive accounts of biotechnology policy in the United States, Japan, and Western Europe (for example, see U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1984; Sharp, 1985a,b, 1986; Davies, 1986; U.S. Department of Commerce 1985a,b; Lewis, 1984; Anderson, 1984; Tanaka, 1985; Fransman et al., forthcoming).
One of the most interesting points to emerge from this literature is the substantially different pattern of government intervention that exists in the biotechnology field in the different countries studied. For example, in the United States there is strong support for basic research and relatively little for applied generic research and applied research. [It has been noted that 'The United States, both in absolute dollar amounts and in relative terms, has the largest commitment to basic research in the biological sciences.... On the other hand, the U.S. Government's commitment to generic applied research (defined as research which bridges the gap between basic science done mostly in universities and applied, proprietary science done in industry) in biotechnology is relatively small' (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1984). The report goes on to observe that in 'fiscal year 1983, the Federal Government spent $511 million on basic biotechnology research compared to $6.4 million on generic applied research in biotechnology'. On the other hand, 'The governments of Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the United Kingdom fund a significant amount of generic applied science in biotechnology' (p.14)]. In the United States there is little attempt to direct government research funding into areas selected for their strategic and competitive value. Furthermore, little or no attempt is made by government to influence interfirm interactions in the area of biotechnology.
The pattern of government policy in biotechnology is fundamentally different in Japan, where the biotechnology system is characterized by a number of distinctive features, including (1) the relative absence of national new biotechnology firms; (2) the weakness of Japanese university research in frontier basic research in the life sciences relative to universities in other advanced Western countries; and (3) the evolution of government-initiated, innovative forms of organization for the acquisition, assimilation, generation, and diffusion of new generic biotechnologies. These organizational innovations include the biotechnology component of the Next Generation Basic Technologies Development Programme initiated by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in 1981 and the Protein Engineering Research Institute (PERI) supported by the Japan Key Technologies Center, under the control of MITI and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT). These features of the Japanese system are analysed in Fransman et al. (forthcoming).
The United Kingdom has displayed a pattern of government intervention somewhat intermediate between those of the United States and Japan. Although there is no 'grand strategy' for biotechnology in Britain, there are nonetheless some similarities with the Japanese case. In 1980, for example, a year before the MITI biotechnology programme was launched, the Spinks report (ACARD, 1980) proposed a strong government-led programme in biotechnology. Although the response was not as strong as might have been envisaged in the report, attempts were nonetheless made by various government agencies to encourage generic applied and applied research through interfirm collaboration and cooperation with universities. The Department of Trade and Industry, which set up a specialist biotechnology unit in the Department, has established a number of research 'clubs' which bring firms together for collaborative research. [In fact, it was after these clubs, first introduced into Britain at the end of the First World War, that MITI modelled its research associations-see Sigurdson (1986), p. 6]. Similarly, the Science and Engineering Research Council, which finances basic research, has identified a number of 'strategic' areas in which to concentrate research and has set up a number of collaborative research programmes involving firms and universities (Dunnill and Rudd, 1984). Like the United States, Great Britain has had an extremely strong base in basic research, at least until recently when the science budget has been adversely affected by reductions in government expenditures (see Sharp, 1985b).
It is one thing to describe different patterns of government intervention such as these, but guise another to explain them. All of the governments whose policies in biotechnology have been reviewed in the literature have confronted the same set of internationally evolving biotechnologies with different institutions, strengths, and weaknesses. Why have their policies and strategies in biotechnology differed to the extent that they have? Furthermore, how is the effectiveness of the different policies of different governments to be evaluated? Finally, how should governments go about the task of making policy in the biotechnology field? In posing fundamental questions like these, it becomes clear that existing studies of biotechnology policy have barely begun to scratch the surface.
Perhaps the major conclusion to emerge is that we do not yet adequately understand the determinants of the policies of different governments in the field of biotechnology. Accordingly, for example, we are not yet able to explain why the biotechnology policies of the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, discussed at the beginning of this section, differ in the ways that they do. In view of our current lack of understanding in this area it may be suggested that a priority for future research should be to examine why governments have intervened in the ways that they have in the biotechnology field. With an understanding of the political influences and constraints it will then be possible to ask how governments might attempt to construct better, more effective, biotechnology policies. Cross-country comparisons should be of great help in highlighting national differences and helping to identify determinants of policy.
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