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.
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