Confident of a better future

November 7, 1997

Advances in biotechnology must be life-enhancing and not dehumanising, says John Battle

Biotechnology is fast becoming a major global industry. That much is beyond doubt. Equally certain is the fact that rapid developments in biotechnology research are providing both major opportunities and major challenges to those working in the field.

The human genome project has the potential to transform our world in the new century and give us an unprecedented insights into the very secrets of our life. As President Clinton put it earlier this year at Morgan State University, Baltimore: "If the last 50 years were the age of physics, the next 50 will be the age of biology". Already, within Europe, the United Kingdom has established a clear lead in industrial biotechnology. Building on the strength of our excellent biological science base, we have created a world-class industry and a supportive infrastructure in biotechnology. We have well over 200 specialist bioscience companies (growing at the rate of three a month) and more than 400 companies involved in bioscience-related activities. More than a quarter of all Europe's biotechnology small to medium-sized enterprises are in the UK, employing more than 10,000 people.

When considered in conjunction with the substantial investment in biotechnology by established companies in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, food and agriculture, it is clear that this is a substantial new area of economic activity. A few facts and figures illustrate the point.

Biotechnology has already made a big contribution in healthcare, from antibiotics and vaccines, to human insulin and cholesterol test kits. There are already two biotech drugs in the world's top 30 best-selling pharmaceutical products. And it is claimed that by the year 2000 all new pharmaceutical products launched will include some input from biotechnology.

Biotechnology is also providing solutions to everyday problems, from enzymes such as grease digesters in the catering industry, to microbes to clean up waste water from oil refineries. Less than two years after its launch, Zeneca's genetically modified tomato paste consistently outsells its conventional counterparts in supermarkets.

The decline of traditional industries presents Europe with a major challenge. But it is a source of hope that new industries such as these are growing so fast. The latest survey estimates that as many as 400,000 European jobs are linked to biotechnology. It is also estimated that within the next decade that number could rise to more than three million, with an associated turnover of 250billion Ecus.

Biotechnology offers hope. It offers solutions to problems which have otherwise looked intractable. This is a field where the quality of life benefits go hand in hand with new opportunities for wealth creation and employment. And yet, despite all this hope, promise and excitement, there are genuineconcerns.

Biotechnology raises difficult ethical questions and there is real fear that technological advances are outstripping our capacity to handle them. Addressing those concerns and winning public confidence will be vital if the industry is to flourish in the years to come. The 1996 EuroBarometer survey of public opinion published by the European Commission showed that about half the people surveyed were optimistic about the impact of biotechnology. (For the UK the figure was slightly higher than average, 55 per cent, but the number of British optimists has fallen somewhat in the past five years.) Predictably, people were most enthusiastic about medical applications and most cautious about the use of genetic engineering in foodstuffs and about the use of animals for organ transplants. Above all, the survey found that people want their opinions on modern biotechnology taken into account, even if the field is unfamiliar to many of them.

The government is committed to playing a part in getting the climate right for the development of this technology. We are currently spending nearly Pounds 600 million a year on biotechnology research and development in universities and research institutes. We are supporting technology transfer to encourage the launch of new small firms and sustain the ones we have. In July I announced the second round of the Biotechnology Mentoring and Incubator Challenge to help young biotech companies grow, and assistance through the Biotechnology Exploitation Platforms Challenge to improve management of intellectual property.

Intellectual property rights are of crucial importance to knowledge-based industries and we need to get an acceptable Europe-wide framework up and running. But at the same time, I want to ensure advances in biotechnology are life- enhancing and not dehumanising.

The debate about the European Union's draft directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions - which will harmonise patent laws across Europe with respect to biotechnological techniques - has given rise to wider concerns. Industry's task is to engage in the debate, address these concerns and explain the new scientific developments and benefits biotechnology can offer.

As we face the end of the 20th century, we are dogged by a millennial pessimism, fearing the future and an absolute loss of any sense that it will be different or better. One thing the late 20th century has taught us is that the pace of change is ever increasing. The future is not what it used to be, as the poet Paul Valery put it.

I want people to be confident in a future that will be different and better. Biotechnology will play an important part in the way we shape the future as we enter the 21st century. The biotechnology industry needs to recognise that public support is vital to the future of the industry and I call on it to take the steps necessary to build public trust and to communicate the hope and potential needed to fuse together both wealth generation in the new 21st century industries and an improvement in the quality of lives on our planet.

John Battle is the minister for science. A draft directive on the legal protection of biotechnological inventions will be discused at an internal meeting of the European Union council on November .

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