2.2 The generation of biotechnology: Invention and innovation
Social scientists have generally been reluctant to examine the causes of technical change, preferring instead to analyse its consequences. This is evident, for example, in the approach adopted by Hicks (1981) in his Nobel Prize address titled 'The Mainspring of Economic Growth', which was summarized in the introduction to this chapter. For Hicks, 'invention', which provides the major impulse for economic growth, remains exogenous to the economic system. Hicks's main concerns are the response of prices and profits to the impulse and the secondary innovations which they in turn induce. Similarly, until relatively recently (see Mackenzie and Wajcman, 1985), many sociologists of technology have been proponents of a technological determinism, whereby technology is seen to influence society unidirectionally.
The temptations underlying the bias to study the consequences of technical change are easy to understand. To begin with, technical change is a major force for economic and social change and social scientists are therefore correctly interested in the impact of changing technology. Furthermore, if the analysis were broadened to examine the causes of technical change, the task would be considerably complicated (and would present economists the additional problem raised by the need to consider determinants and processes that are not narrowly economic). For reasons such as these the causes of technical change, as Rosenberg (1982) noted, remain understudied.
Although understandable, this bias in the literature presents important difficulties. Since the analysis is partial, leaving out the determinants of technical change, technology is necessarily assumed to be static. This assumption more than any other has been the target of attack for students of technology, including economists interested in the process of technical change and related economic change.
However, far from being static, technology changes constantly, with important implications for studying the consequences of technical change. In short, understanding the consequences of technical change over time requires a more general conceptual framework which includes analysing the causes of technical change. Such a framework would acknowledge that the consequences of technical change also influence, through a variety of feedback mechanisms, the generation of further technical change with implications for later-round impacts of such change.
This section is devoted to an examination of the generation of biotechnology which at the same time will facilitate a critical review of the literature. The discussion is assisted by reference to Figure 2.1.
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