Science in Society Archive

Blair's Biotech Vision Clouded

Blair's vision of biotechnology and science is outmoded and out of touch with market reality. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho asks why Blair and other governments are throwing even more public money away at a sinking titanic of enterprises, while vital health and agricultural services are disintegrating for want of rational investments.

Frustrated by escalating protests against GM crops in Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a keynote speech in defence of science in London's Royal Society [1], accusing the anti-GM of being anti-science - an impression that the pro-biotech scientific establishment in Britain has been trying to project all along. But Blair only has to count the number of scientists presenting evidence against placing Aventis' Chardon LL transgenic maize on the National Seed List in the recently resumed public hearing [2] to realize that there are genuine scientific disagreements over the safety of GM crops.

Still more worrying is Blair branding any objection to anything scientists do as anti-science. "The fundamental distinction is between a process where science tells us the facts and we make a judgement; and a process where a priori judgements effectively constrain scientific research," he said, "So let us know the facts; then make the judgement as to how we use or act on them."

Blair's view of science is hopelessly anachronistic. He sees science as a collection of irrefutable, neutral 'facts', divorced from ethics or politics, and independent of how we observe at the fundamental level. This view of science has been deconstructed by generations of western philosophers beginning with Kant, and including Goethe, Hume, the later Wittgenstein, Whitehead and Popper; and dealt the death-blow by quantum physics. And I am not even referring to the tired thesis of science as "social construction".

Unfortunately, naïve positivism, for that's what it is, is endemic to the scientific establishment, which effectively gives scientists carte blanche on what they can do. And that is why irresponsible, unaccountable, discredited science and dangerous, useless technologies continue to be foisted on society in the name of progress.

But let's concentrate on Blair's vision of biotechnology for Britain, which is making him throw lots of taxpayer's money away. It appears to have come straight out of a biotech company's pr brochure, based on the assumption that genes determine all: drugs "tailored to an individual's genetic make-up", doctors pinpointing "flawed genes and gene products", predicting diseases and so avoiding them.

To help realize this vision, the Blair government is funding a controversial 'BioBank' project, to amass human DNA samples to be analyzed and stored alongside personal data and health records. Critics have already pointed to the potential misuse of the database, of genetic discrimination against those carrying real or putative 'disease-associated' genes and the erosion of privacy.

More seriously, the BioBank project is motivated and promoted on a faulty understanding of genetics. It doesn't take account of how dynamic and flexible the genetic material is, and how the environment strongly affects both the function and structure of the genetic material (see "GMOs 25 years on", this series) [3]. Some of us have even predicted years ago that the entire project of genetic engineering is bound to fail, as it goes against everything we know about how genes really work.

There is a real danger that further scientific talent and financial resources are both going to waste on GM and genomics research, while more promising approaches to improving health languish from a total lack of investment.

Britain does have great strength in science, as Blair pointed out. "With 1% of the world's population, we fund 4.5% of the world's science, produce 8% of the scientific papers and receive 9% of the citations". But the disproportionate concentration of research funding in market-oriented biotechnology is far from conducive to scientific creativity.

Britain has produced 44 Nobel laureates in the last 50 years, more than any country except the US, but only eight of those are in the last 20 years. Blair blamed that on having "relied for too long on tradition and sentiment" instead of strong funding and public support. And so his government has been putting that right.

Apart from having increased funding for science by 15% in 1998 and by 7% in 2000, the Blair government is establishing strong links between universities and business through specific schemes - such as University Challenge, Link, the Faraday Partnerships and the Higher Education Innovation Fund. These links would ensure that most of the increase in science funding is tied to work with industry. Notably, £2.5 billion has already been earmarked for genomics and related research over five years from 1999 [4], which is again heavily industry-oriented.

In addition, the British government has just introduced further new tax credit for research and development: "a £400 million boost to innovation, affecting £11 billion of expenditure by 1,500 large companies in the UK".

Blair proudly told his audience that in1999-2000, 199 companies were spun off from our universities, compared with 70 a year on average in the previous five years. The number of patents filed was also sharply up. And the percentage of university research funded by industry was higher than in the US. What he did not say was that very few of the companies were making any profit, even with such large subsidies from the public purse.

"Biotechnology is at the forefront of these developments," Blair said, "The biotech industry's market in Europe alone is expected to be worth $100 billion by 2005. The number of people employed in biotech and associated companies could be as high as three million, as we catch up with the US industry - currently eight times the size of Europe's."

But, a study of biotech centres in the US just released (see "Biotech fever burning, burning out?", this series), shows most biotech firms operate at a loss, spending large amounts on research and development for several years in advance of earning any sales revenue. The typical biotech firm spent about $8.4 million on research and development and earned revenues of just $2.5 million in 1998. Nor do biotech firms contribute significantly to job creation. Most are quite small; nationally only 44 have more than 1,000 employees. Biotech firms typically contract with global pharmaceutical firms to produce, market, and distribute successful products rather than attempting to create their own capacity to do so.

The study concludes that it would be a mistake to believe biotech centres would take off like those of the computer technology centres. Unlike the boom created by the personal computer and internet, biotechnologies are often quite expensive, and most biotech products are applicable to only a narrow fraction of the population.

I have seen an estimate made by Britain's Department of Trade and Industry in1998, which anticipated that by 2000, UK revenue from biotechnology would be £9bn [5]. This was out by a factor of seven. Britain's biotech revenue, the largest of any European country, amounted to just over €2 bn in 2001 [6]. The total biotech revenue in 2001 for the whole of Europe is under €8.7 bn. Does Blair really believe it will grow by more than ten fold to $100 billion come 2005? Yet, it is this kind of wild projection that has driven research and development in biotechnology, that in turn, impact on the health and food security of billions around the world.

The focus on biotechnology and 'wealth creation' over the past twenty years may be as much to blame as the lack of funding for failing to generate the expected numbers of Nobel laureates in Britain over the same period. It would not surprise anyone to find an inverse relationship between scientific excellence and science driven by rampant commercialism that effectively turn our scientists into corporate slaves through misguided government science funding policies.

Despite heroic efforts to keep the biotech bubble inflated [7], industry has not benefited on the whole. In April, the UK House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee sent out a general call for submissions "on the current and future prospects for the UK biotechnology industry, including genomics and related aspects of the pharmaceutical industry". Is that a sign of creeping doubt that the prospects are less than rosy?

The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development released research last December showing that the 'biotechnology revolution' during the past two decades has slowed the development of drugs while increasing costs. Industry's enthusiasm for the promise of genomics has been muted [8].

In January, Craig Venter, president and chief scientific officer of the private company Celera that sequenced the human genome, reportedly "quit (or was told to leave)" the firm created for him in 1998. He returned to run the Institute for Genomics Research, a non-profit organisation that he founded earlier [9]. Celera is described as a company with "bright prospects but an uncertain future". During the past year and a half, the firm has been trying to reinvent itself as a drug company. Mapping the genome has not translated into profits. If Celera's fiscal 2002 ending June follows the pattern of 2000 and 2001, loss will outstrip sales two to one: $350 to 375 million on sales of $140 to $180 million, making Celera's total loss almost three-quarter of a billion dollars.

Blair also mentioned stem cell research, closely associated with 'therapeutic' human cloning by the nuclear transplant technology that created Dolly the first cloned sheep. Unfortunately, things have gone from bad to worse, as neither the transgenic nor the cloning technology has progressed beyond the initial insurmountable hurdles. PPL Therapeutics, the "cash-strapped creator of Dolly the sheep", is in talks to sell its stem cell research to Singapore-based ES Cell International, a drugs company that recently poached PPL's research director, Alan Colman [10]. Separate negotiations are under way to sell the company's US-based business in xenotransplantation - a pointless, cruel and hazardous technology that should have been abandoned long ago [11].

The company further spent money expanding its high-security farm in New Zealand, which contains more than 1,000 sheep, many of which have been genetically altered. A spokesperson for ING Barings recently stated they have had doubts about the viability of transgenic animals for some time [12]. To date there have been no medicines made from transgenic animals, a process that's inefficient and ineffective by all accounts. The Royal Society has redoubled its efforts to promote transgenic animals [13], and the Blair speech is part of the campaign to dismiss those objecting to transgenic animals as much as those objecting to GM crops.

Celera and PPL are not the only biotech companies in trouble. Investment in biotechnology has been going down with the rest of high technology.

Venture capital investments in start-up companies in the US dropped 23% from $8.1 billion to $6.2 billion in the first quarter of 2002 compared with the previous quarter. Investments have been decreasing for the past two years.

This reflects a sharp reduction in demand for the stocks of new technology companies, and continued cuts in technology budgets among corporations. The hardest-hit industries are software, biotechnology and telecommunication.

Investments plunged 35% to $752 million in biotech companies doing gene research to speed the creation of drugs. That was a setback because biotech had replaced e-commerce as a favourite among venture capitalists.

Venture capital investments are seen as the primary precursor to economic growth, they have fueled the dot-com boom in the 1990s.

Another increasingly important factor determining investment is ethics. Britain's Co-Operative Bank reported record annual profits in April as it reaps the rewards of ethical investment. The bank has now ceased to do business with biotech companies involved in genetic modification or cloning. The decision followed consultation with its customers, who are genuinely concerned about a wide range of issues [14], including the uncontrolled release of GMOs into the environment, negative impacts on developing countries, patenting of life-forms, in particular, of indigenous knowledge, and cloning; in particular, of animals for non-medical purposes.

Despite all these signs that the anticipated biotech boom is not going to happen, our governments are caught in a frenzy of new tax cuts and other corporate subsidies. Britain is not alone. Germany, France and the entire European Community are following suite [6].

Philippe Pouletty, president of France Biotech, the national industry association, has pushed successfully for the adoption in France of "Plan Biotech 2002", part of a finance bill to mobilize public and private investment to help France' biotech sector. It consists of a €50 million fund to promote new start-ups and €90 million in bank loan guarantees.

In the mid-1990s, Berlin granted three regions including Munich €25 million to match private capital going into start-ups. Under separate programs, federal and state banks also matched private investment. That means each biotech start-up could triple its venture capital with matching grants.

At the Gerona meeting of research ministers, Pouletty urged them to set two goals for Europe's biotech: head-to-head with US in 2007 and ahead by 2017. To get there he proposed a string of measures: uniform European patent and litigation laws,

doubling university research budgets every five years, creating a European Corporation for Innovation to provide tax exemptions for entrepreneurs, investors and corporations across Europe, merging Europe's tech-oriented stock markets to create a European rival to NASDAQ in the US, six months to get regulatory approval for drugs (as opposed to 17 months in the US FDA), subsidies of €5 billion annual support to private biotech companies and EU guaranteed long-term bank loans to help promote mergers and acquisitions within Europe or to take over US firms.

The European Commission has already taken some initiatives seriously: drafting an action plan for the biotech industry that calls for strengthening sources of risk capital and a common simplified regulatory framework.

In short, governments are throwing even more public money away in the hope of salvaging a sinking titanic of enterprises, while vital health and agricultural services are disintegrating for want of rational investments.

Article first published 23/06/02

  1. "Science matters" Prime Minister's Speech, Royal Society, 23 May 2002.
  2. Chardon LL public hearing transcript, DEFRA
  3. "Human DNA 'BioBank' worthless" by Mae-Wan Ho and Nick Papadimitriou, Science in Society 2002, 13/14, 11-2.
  4. "UK to establish population DNA database" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 2001, 7/8.
  5. "Investing in healthcare or the health market?" by Nick Papadimitriou, ISIS News 9/10, 2001.
  6. "Europe's biotech finds the formula" Jennifer L. Schenker, Time digital, 2002, May 27.
  7. Ho MW, Meyer H and Cummins J. The biotechnology bubble. The Ecologist 1998, 28(3), 146-53.
  8. "Genomics for health?" by Mae-Wan Ho, Science in Society 2002, 13/14, 9-10.
  9. "Celera Genomics: No guarantees" By Stephan Herrera, Red Herring June 2002, 78.
  10. " PPL to sell stem cell stake, City worries prompt focus on late-stage proteins"
    by Andrew Clark, The Guardian, March 26, 2002.,4273,4381916,00.html
  11. Ho MW and Cummins J. Xenotransplantation - How bad science and big business put the world at risk from viral pandemics. I-SIS Report, 2000; also Third World Resurgence 2001, 127-128, 46-55.
  12. "Doubts over 'pharming' technology", by David Whitehouse, BBC, 25 March 2002.
  13. "Royal Society soft-selling GM animals" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 2001, 9/10.

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