UK biotech supremacy threatened

May 26, 2000

The UK biotechnology industry is the strongest in Europe, but the Germans are coming.Kam Patel reports

A picture of a "pluralistic yet highly concentrated" system for the funding of biotechnology in the UK has been drawn by the European Commission from a comprehensive study of research and development in the sector across the union. UK national organisations (including charities) were spending E561 million (Pounds 340 million) a year on biotechnology research and development by the end of the period 1996-98. The Commission estimates that a total of E2.57 billion were spent over the 1994-98 period.

Sources of funding are diverse, with more than 25 funding organisations contributing. But the system is dominated by a few large bodies, with four making up 75 per cent of all biotechnology-related funding. They are the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, (52 per cent of all funding); the Wellcome Trust (8 per cent); the Medical Research Council (8 per cent); and the Ministry for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (7 per cent). The research councils together provide E336 million a year, or 60 per cent of all funding.

The bulk of research council funding is given to basic and strategic work, with relatively little going to applied investigations or development of technologies. Funding for market-led activities is largely left to central and regional government offices, the main source of funding being the Link scheme which, the commission estimates, provided a maximum of E23 million a year by the end of 1997, representing 4 per cent of all funding.

The commission says the UK has the strongest biotechnology industry in Europe, with firms such as SmithKline Beecham, Glaxo Wellcome and Zeneca providing strong market pull for developments in R&D.

The commission warns, however, that "Germany is rapidly catching up" with the UK, pointing to the German government's target of becoming "number one" in modern biotechnology and genetic engineering in Europe within the next few years. The German government has been pouring money into developing the sector. The commission estimated that over the period 1994-98, Germany spent E3,020 million in supporting biotechnology R&D.

The annual total spend on biotechnology R&D by key German funders such as the ministry of education and research - through its Biotechnology 2000 programme - and ministry of economics and technology is around E600 million.

A key part of the Biotechnology 2000 programme is the BioRegio competition. The E75 million programme aims to promote and accelerate technology transfer from biotechnology research. In 1998, the German government launched the BioFuture programme to promote and nurture young bioscientists. Up to 50 research groups are supported through the E75 million scheme.

In an effort to forge stronger links between private and public research organisations, the German government has launched networking initiatives including the foundation of "gene centres". They include a collaboration in Cologne between the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding and Bayer AG, and a link-up in Munich between the University of Munich, Hoechst, Wacker Chemie and the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry.

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