US government as promoter of private biotechnology

Keywords:  Private industry; United States of America; Relation public-private sector.
Correct citation: nn. (1995), "Editorial: US government as promoter of private biotechnology." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 24, p. 2­3.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of US biotechnology policy is the major effort the US government puts into co­operation with the private industrial sector. Besides the support for universities and governmental agencies such as the US Department of Agriculture, special federal programmes support the joint commercialization by the public and private sector of results of federal research initiatives.

US universities have played an essential role in the creation of the biotechnology industry as such. The relationship between universities and industry has become complex, including the mixture of public and private funds, resulting in research products finally covered by intellectual property protection. Some will argue that, when the new product appears on the market, the taxpayer finally benefits from the spending of public funds. Others, like Busch in this Monitor, maintain that the general public is charged twice: once as tax payer and once as buyer. Additionally, because of their complex relationship with private industry, it might be doubted whether universities remain independent enough to satisfy those public research needs that are not directly expressed by a significant market demand.
Another essential area of governmental activity is regulation. Already in the early 1980s, the government supported the principle that biotechnology products should not be treated differently from conventional products. This principle 'short­cut' an ideological debate on risk­based regulations and resulted in lax biosafety guidelines compared to international standards. However, it did not impose silence upon the concerned environmental groups and worried scientists regarding potential negative environmental effects of biotechnology products and processes.

The standpoint that biotechnology products are fundamentally the same as conventional products was probably also behind the US policy that no labelling is required for the first biotechnologically produced food items that appeared on the consumer market recently. In this Monitor, Rothenberg and Macer question whether in other countries a government should as actively stimulate the integration of biotechnology products into the domestic food market as the US government does, or whether a government should leave the choice to different societal groups and individuals whether to shop in a biotechnological or conventional market.

The interweaving of government and private industry is also found in US development aid. In their biotechnology programmes, USAID pays significant attention on involving US biotechnology industry in its support for biotechnology research and application in developing countries. Additionally, USAID actively stimulates the development of intellectual property protection and biosafety regulation in the collaborating developing countries through training and information. US biotechnology industry could significantly benefit from this since a lack of international harmonization of intellectual property protection and biosafety regulation might otherwise restrict the export of their biotechnological products in the future.

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