Emerging biotechnologies: technology, choice and the public good


Published 13/12/2012

Emerging biotechnologies cover
Biotechnologies are significant in many aspects of life, from food and energy production to medicine, industry, and economic development.
Women microscope

Research policy for emerging biotechnologies should take account of wider social values and not merely economic benefit.

Framing research policy

Owing to the novelty and complexity of innovation systems for emerging biotechnologies, research policy lacks a relevant, reliable basis in evidence. This deficit tends to be made up by assumptions, which are rarely examined in detail. We identify a number of assumptions that are common in the framing of UK research policy:

a) The UK has an exceptionally strong science base in the life sciences;

b) The UK pharmaceutical industry is extremely economically valuable to the UK;

c) (a) and (b) are linked in that the research base powers the successful industry and the successful industry ensures the applicability of research;

d) Biotechnology is becoming increasingly important to the pharmaceutical industry;

e) Some areas of new science (e.g. synthetic biology) have the potential to boost other areas of UK science such as chemical and agricultural biotechnology;

f) Public spending on research is justifiable only where there is potential to generate economic growth in Britain.

Public investment in emerging biotechnologies is increasingly justified by poorly supported claims about their expected economic impact, which tend to marginalise other important values.

We conclude

Biotechnology policy should attend explicitly to diverse perspectives and bodies of evidence rather than privileging a single, quantitative form of evaluation (such as economic costs and benefits).

There is a need for a serious evaluation and assessment of past research policies, both of Government as a whole and of particular public funding bodies, to understand in what conditions, if any, selective approaches to research have been effective.

Policy makers should approach social objectives in a way that fosters diversity of research approaches across the physical and social sciences, combined with conditions of selection that involve social benefit rather than just market value.

Research policy should not be framed by received assumptions but through continuous engagement with broad perspectives.

Policy coordination

There is no single source of policy for publicly funded research and the principles upon which it is based are not clearly defined. Without clear principles, there is a danger that research policy is determined through closed engagement between scientific, political and industry elites, with no assurance that there is adequate consideration of important social values.

We conclude

There should be a clearly defined, written and published Governmental research policy against which public research policies (e.g. those of Government departments and funding bodies) can be assessed.

Consideration should be given to bringing Government research policy and funding bodies under a senior minister free from departmental responsibilities [Chapter 7].