Blog from Global Forum On Biotechnology - The Evolving Promise Of The Life Sciences
What did the future look like in the past? Can we go back to describe innocently what the future looked like and how it turned out? Are we conscious of the ways that past futures didn’t work out? These were a few of the questions put forward by Steve Yearley whilst chairing the first plenary session of the Genomics Forum/OECD Global Forum on The Evolving Promise of the Life Sciences. The session looked at understanding the economic and social expectations of biotech over the last thirty years.
Robert Cook-Deegan began making a loose analogy comparing developments in the IT/internet industry with biotech, suggesting that biotechnology is shifting in the direction of an information science. Both the internet and genome technology grew out of government funding aimed at solving particular problems. The first IT customers were usually government customers who required great big machines good at counting things i.e. the first computer bought was for the US census. In contrast the Human Genome Project arose after a debate in the 1980’s with a government driven effort to understand disease and the first customers for early products were research labs undertaking research into molecular biology. Both IT and biotech were viewed as “hot” technologies, leading to government action to kick-start their wider development.
However, as IT and biotech have developed, whereas the IT big guns of Apple and Microsoft helped shape policy and frame issues the same has not yet happened with their biotech equivalents. Yet the future of biotechnology will be different to the past: it will probably look more like the history and business models of IT. Looking at Moore’s law; i.e. chip technology gets twice as good every 18 months – essentially technologies once thought of as being restricted because their costs were prohibitive become ubiquitous. In biotechnology, the first genome map cost over $1 billion to generate and now it costs c. $1,000.
Why does this matter? What is happening in biotech now is that the cost of generation of data has stopped being a “choke point”. This will lead to an emphasis in genomics away from trying to generate data cost effectively, to interpreting the underlying biology represented by the data. But this analysis can only be undertaken if such genomic data can be shared rapidly and efficiently. To take advantage of these benefits we need analyse lots of genomes, and share these to take advantage of the “network benefits”. Policies have been developed to ensure genomic data remains personal and private, but to actualise the benefits of genomic research it will be necessary to share a lot of genomic information about individuals and policy needs to be developed that allows this to take place “safely” and builds infrastructure to support this. Bob concluded by stating that this is where policy discussion should be going, but as yet he hadn’t seen much evidence of progress along these lines.
David Wield focussed on industrial issues, particularly in relation to pharmaceuticals. He considered three areas: the past promise (what did promise look like 30 years ago), what does it look like now, and the future. The early biotech promise was fuelled by the Silicon Valley style model, if Apple could do it why couldn’t the bioscience companies do it? It was perceived that many biotech start-ups would quickly develop into major players. The reality is that there have only been a few big biotech firms that have developed in this way, and biotech is highly dependent on the big pharmaceutical companies. The biotech industry doesn’t appear to have matched the expectation that it would develop like the IT sector and it seems to be impossible for small firms to grow into big firms at the moment. So what has happened?
Three factors are responsible: the original promise of biotech was quite simplistic; the biotech model has morphed to become part of “biopharma”; and biotech requires high levels of investment for relatively modest returns of profit. So what is the present promise which allows biotech companies and associated investment to grow? The firms are embedded in institutions and public policy. The future potential for bioscience is the reason for large and continuing investment; we are not there yet but we could be. It is a speculative industry which has developed in a way that was not anticipated at the beginning of the biotech revolution, with firms morphing and producing 100’s of strategic alliances.
The future promise is based on rule change, smart regulation, open innovation systems; and around public and public private nature of innovation in this sector. Key is a rule change towards open innovation which doesn’t require governments but investors to work together. Lastly the public nature of innovation and its link to the health system is another key indication about what might be possible in the future.
Mitsuru Miyata explained how in Japan there is a top down approach to biotech policy. Before 2000 Japanese pharmaceutical companies were competing well with the USA and Europe, but over the last 10 years sales have fallen. Post 2000 production declined mainly due to a wrong strategic decision by Japanese pharmaceutical companies with research focussing on small molecules. The reason for this failure is Japan’s conservative culture, poor science policy, poor venture financing and poor public acceptance of biotech (especially in relation to Genetically Modified Organisms).
Since 2009 the government has introduced a strategy for new national growth with the goal of job creation. Companies are moving into personalised medicine and competing globally, with ventures such as new biotechnology clarifying the food secret of longevity. Mitsuru concluded that Japan needs to be prepared to be less risk averse with its investment and gain public acceptance to GMO (Japanese residents are anti GMO but the country is the biggest GMO importer in the world). He hopes for a bright future by continuous scientific innovation.
The final talk was given by Steve Yearley in place of Ruth Schwartz Cowan, who couldn’t make it to Paris following Hurricane Sandy. Steve explained that he was not using her slides; his were just homage to Ruth!
Steve summed up by stating that the path of technology is not set in advance, with its clear trajectory often only being seen after the event. Projections of the future often turn out to be mistaken as we guess the societal elements that influence these, badly. Consumers are shaping which technologies go forward and they play a role in the path that technology takes; particularly what attracts consumers at a particular time.We often think that technologies move along because they get better, but such “betterness” is difficult to define in a meaningful way. In food and health issues there is so much variation within the population. What mechanisms do we use to work out what is better?
The future of technology is dictated by economics and political prestige and it’s important to stress that expectations, even if wrong, are crucial. Everyone is engaged in the generation of expectations and they are not insulated from the world they are trying to predict. Expectations are always being developed in “conversation” with what’s actually happening (the hermeneutic circle idea that our interpretations of the world go out there and expectations become true).
Steve concluded by saying that expectations are not just a picture of what the world will be like they are a contribution to our envisioning about what the future will be.