Biotechnology blueprint

Needs work before it can be a second infotech

 
By Rajeswari S Raina
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Biotechnology blueprint

-- The Biotechnology Strategy document (dbt, 2005) reinforces our conviction that policy and practice in this area of science and technology (s&t) has to go beyond conventional research for technology generation.

Proclaimed as 'the technology of hope' that will turn India into a hub of innovation, the draft document was revealed by the Union government on March 31, 2005. It charts a biotechnology (biotech) plan that will utilise its research results in industry, agriculture, healthcare, diagnostics and other sub-sectors and calls for a network of relevant stakeholders, supported by public investment and practices, to share expertise, resources and infrastructure.

The recommendations -- the Institute Innovation Grant for academic research, a resource cadre, new travel norms and funds for scientists, technology transfer cells, the Small Business Innovation Research Initiative scheme -- are well intentioned. But for biotechnology to take off like information technology (it) did, demands a less linear approach. Multiple actors, skills and perspectives, continuous learning, adaptability and access are the hallmarks of a successful innovation system.

Then, despite it 's many lessons, should a science-based industry about life forms, like biotech, learn about application and expansion from the application of information and communication technologies? Why are complementary and substitutive agencies in the same life sciences-based industry ignored? The biotech establishment is still fighting battles with the components of its own innovation systems instead of taking them along.

The eleven sub-sectoral road maps express the need for institutional capacities and processes, from multi-disciplinary teams to empowering legislations. How are these capacities to be built? Why add new research centres when existing ones are yet to be incorporated into relevant innovation systems?

The document doesn't visualise the interaction between sub-sectors. How is nano-technology, it -enabled biotech and bio-informatics to be integrated with rural (agricultural, environmental or clinical) innovations? Can drought tolerance, emergence of disease in crop or cattle (sensors monitor and communicate indicators) lead to bio-info-innovations radically transforming the livelihoods of the rural poor?

In a society marked by unequal opportunities for communication and governed by urban middle class needs, the draft document reinforces convention. Its pragmatism, typical of s&t, industry and the educated middle class, is quite divorced from the practical realities of the rural poor. Agriculture occupies only 10 per cent of the total value of the biotech industry, but a strategy document that ignores it, or the processes and capacities needed for rural realities to be included in biotechnology innovation systems, needs substantial revision.

Industry-government pact? Evident in the document's language and content are emerging partnerships between public (the Department of Biotechnology) and private (industry) sectors. Public sector research councils support biotech parks, incubators, regulatory or agronomic assessment functions and training. Responsibility for generation of basic/frontier knowledge in biotech, with accountability to society and science, is no longer the exclusive prerogative of the state's research departments. Contrary to the public-private dichotomy presented in the document, science-based industries straddle different sectors and draw upon diverse forms of capital. The quasi private-public 'hybrid firm', embedded in public sector institutions (legal, scientific and administrative) and learning from or communicating with civil society and the market, seems to be the preferred future for biotech innovations.

The draft document leaves many questions unanswered. Still nebulous are issues like the role of civil society. Also, how are ecologists or health services to monitor research projects to deliver public goods? Strategies for biotechnology innovations demand social science analyses and new policy research processes. Perhaps a radical change in Indian s&t policy making from a prescriptive 'recommending' mode to a more open, flexible and interactive mode, of learning together to achieve development goals, is the answer.

Rajeswari S Raina is a scientist with the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (nistads), New Delhi. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of nistads

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