Futures of biotechnology and geopolitics

Christopher Chase-Dunn,

Richard Niemeyer and Juliann Allison

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

A Paper to be discussed at the Genencor celebration seminar, June 9, 2006 in Palo Alto.

IROWS Working Paper # 23

v. 5-31-06

New lead industries have been important elements in the rise and prolongation of economic hegemonies since the Dutch hegemony of the 17th century.  British cotton textile manufacturers were able to make large profits exporting their goods all over the world in the early nineteenth century.  As other countries developed cotton textile manufacturing and the profits declined, the British economy managed to stay ahead of the game by exporting the machinery that made cotton textiles, and then by moving into other capital goods sectors such as railroads and steamships.  Similarly, U.S. economic hegemony in the 20th century was first fueled by automobile exports.  After greater international competition emerged, the United States continued to garner technological rents by inventing, producing and exporting new products including nuclear energy equipment, military technology and information technology. Now many believe that U.S. advantages in biotechnology might substantially contribute to a new round of U.S. economic hegemony within the next several decades.  Our research evaluates this contention by examining the spatio-temporal patterns of biotechnology research, development, and commercialization in the world economy since 1980, as well as patterns of consumer and political resistance to some of the products of biotechnology. We hypothesize that consumer and political resistance will affect some subsectors of the biotechnology industries differently from others. We estimate the sizes of effects under different conditions in order to parameterize models of alternative future scenarios.

This research project compares the contemporary biotechnology industries with world historical patterns of technological development and globalization over the past two centuries in order to examine the similarities and differences between the British and U.S. hegemonies, and to consider the potential impacts of the emerging biotechnology industries on the current and future international power position of the United States.  We compare the trajectories and internal structures of biotechnology industries with other recent new lead industries, especially the nuclear power industry and the information technology industry.  In addition, we study changing worldwide patterns of political and consumer resistance to biotechnology in order to assess the potential future impact of resistance on the profitability of commercialized biotechnology and its prospects for substantially contributing to the renewal of the United States’s economic comparative advantage in the world economy.  The results of our research will help to resolve theoretical disagreements between the power cycle and the world-systems perspective, and will inform public debates about the allocation of funding for research and development.

Some observers contend that the information technology industry has already run through most of the standard course of the product cycle. Technological rents are few and globalized competition over the costs of production and services, with IT jobs being outsourced to the semiperiphery, seems to imply that this sector will no longer serve as an engine of U.S. economic hegemony. Biotechnology has been heralded as the new engine, but so far most of the money that has been made and spent by the industry derives from research grants and selling stocks. Governments and venture capitalists have put up great sums with the hope of grand paychecks down the road, and huge amounts have been spent on attorney’s fees obtaining patents on processes and genomes. Significant competition has emerged from India, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Peoples’ Republic of China, challenging the notion that the United States is the only serious contender. A rapid expansion of real profits could occur, but the development of real-world economic applications may continue to be slow. If this is the case biotechnology may not serve, in the next few decades, as an engine of renewed U.S. economic hegemony.


Hegemonic Rise and Fall and New Lead Industries

        The three hegemonies of the modern world-system have been the Dutch in the seventeenth century, the British in the nineteenth century, and the hegemony of the United States in the twentieth century. Political scientists and sociologists have carefully studied the processes of hegemonic rise and decline.   Recent studies by Joachim Rennstich (2001, 2004) combine the insights of Giovanni Arrighi’s (1994) formulation of the organizational innovations that have facilitated the emergence of larger and larger hegemons over the last six centuries. with the “power cycle” approach of George Modelski and William R. Thompson (1996).  Modelski and Thompson contend that the British successfully managed to enjoy two “power cycles,” one in the eighteenth and another in the nineteenth centuries. With this precedent in mind, Rennstich predicts that the U.S. will succeed itself in the twenty-first century.

 Rennstich’s analyses (2001, 2004) of the organizational, cultural and political requisites of the contemporary new lead industries – information technology and biotechnology – imply that the United States has a large comparative advantage that will most probably lead to another round of U.S. economic pre-eminence in the world-system. But important resistance to genetically engineered products has arisen as consumers and environmentalists worry about the unintended consequences of introducing radically new organisms and compunds into the biosphere. Ethicists have raised many concerns about medical biotechnology. Even conservative critics such as Francis Fukuyama (2002) have called for public regulation of efforts to create a post human genome. We study the several subsectors of biotechnology applications and commercialization as “new lead industries” and their impacts on the distribution of power in the world-system. Our study entails a global examination of the loci and timing of private and publicly funded research and development, the emergence of biotechnology firms that are developing and selling products, and the emergence of biosafety policies that are intended to regulate and test genetically engineered products. We time-map[1] and content analyze the emergence of the contentious discourse about the risks of medical and agricultural biotechnology. In conjunction with this effort, we develop several scenarios and alternative models of the timing of the onset of biotechnology profitability and its potential future impact on the United States’s position in the world. Data on both the business history and the emergence of resistance will be used to parameterize these models and to examine the likelihood of these future scenarios.

Figure 1: New Lead Industries Since the 14th Century: The Product Cycle


Defining The Biotechnology Sector

Our research examines the several related parts of the biotechnology sector and compares them with one another. The biotechnology sector is defined as all those potentially commercializable technologies that are based on the life sciences – biology, botany, entomology, physiology, genetics, and their overlaps with physical sciences such as chemistry, physics, and materials science. Our project studies both the new and the old biotechnology. The new biotechnology has been defined by the U.S. Department of Commerce as “technologies that manipulate cellular, subcellular, or molecular components in living things to make products, discover new knowledge about the molecular and genetic basis of life, or modify plants, animals, and microorganisms to carry desired traits (DOC 2002).”[2]  The old biotechnology was composed of the earlier economic uses of living organisms that have benefited from modern scientific research, but that were prior to the discovery of recombinant DNA and cell fusion. A comparative historical approach is necessary for understanding the similarities and the differences between contemporary new lead industries and those of the nineteenth century. The international history of the old biotechnology is quite relevant for comprehending the early comparative advantage that the U.S. developed in the new biotechnology (e.g. Pistorius and van Eijk 1999).

The principal industries that employ the new biotechnology are pharmaceuticals, animal and plant agriculture, specialty chemicals and food additives, environmental products and services, commodity chemicals, energy production and bioelectronics. Of these, we will focus primarily on medical and food-producing applications because these are likely to be quite different with regard to the amount of political and consumer resistance that they generate.


Previous Studies of the Biotechnology Industry

Since the early 1980’s, several major efforts have been made to study the development of the biotechnology sector within the United States.  The impetus for these studies has come from the powerful realization of three key facts (OTA 1984, DOC 2002, Runge, Ryan 2003):


  1. The creation of new technologies, as well as the science involved in their production, is essential to the development of long-term economic growth and international competitiveness.
  2. No new area of science or technology holds greater promise or potential for long-term economic growth than biotechnology.

3.      Relevant data regarding biotechnology must be gathered so as to develop timely and accurate statistical measures of the economic scope and size of the U.S. biotechnology industry, the level of growth, trade and performance in biotech markets, the level of R&D and venture capital both in use by and available to biotech companies, as well as the nature of existing and potential barriers to future growth. Data of this nature will play an essential role in lawmakers and policy analyst’s ability to effectively promote the future growth and the development of the U.S. biotechnology industry.


In 1984, a study by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) of the U.S. Congress (OTA 1984) compared the United States’s competitiveness in biotechnology of the with that of Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, France, and Switzerland with regard to ten factors argued to be important for competitiveness (see below). The study concluded that, with regard to all of these factors, the United States had large advantages over possible competitors and encouraged additional public and private investments in biotechnology. A lot has happened in biotechnology (and the world) since this influential research report was published. It is time to reassess the role of biotechnology in international and historical comparative perspective and to compare it with the historical trajectories of other new lead industries. Our research employs an improved research design to study the global trajectory of the biotechnology industry since 1980 and to compare this industry with other new lead industries that have emerged during past hegemonies and hegemonic declines.

In 2002 the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) commissioned a new study to assess the current status of the U.S. biotechnology industry by documenting its development and adoption.  The study consisted of a mailed survey to over 3000 U.S. firms to determine their specific areas of activity, economic performance, R&D expenditures, size of workforce, and perceived barriers to competitiveness.  Prior to this time, the U.S. Government did not collect industrial statistics regarding biotechnology due to lack of a sufficiently differentiated classification system at the U.S. Bureau of the Census regarding the definition of “biotechnology”.  The purpose of the survey was to establish such baseline statistics, as well as to provide a comprehensive understanding of current activity for industry officials and policy makers (DOC 2002).  In 2003 the Council of Biotechnology Information (CBI) funded a study on the development and adoption of agricultural biotechnology in the United States (Runge, Ryan 2003).  The purpose of the CBI study was to document the adoption and profitability of plant biotechnology, the level of public and private R&D by crop and trait, and the economic impact and future directions of agricultural biotechnology (Runge, Ryan 2003). The Department of Commerce and the Council of Biotechnology Information reports provide valuable results, but neither examined the U.S. biotechnology industry in a global context.

International agreements and institutions are also important factors that need to be taken into account in order to understand the profitability and multiplier effects of new lead technologies.  It is necessary now to understand and evaluate current trajectories of international economic, political and military competition and conflict, as well as conditions and trends in the world political economy as a whole.

 Waves of international economic integration (trade and investment globalization) are relevant for understanding the economic consequences of biotechnology (e.g. Chase-Dunn, Kawano and Brewer 2000). If financial instability or environmental problems cause the world economy to stagnate, or if conflicts increase to the point that economic production and exchange are greatly reduced, comparative advantages due to biotechnology would be postponed and international diffusion would have a greater chance to reduce technological rents.

There are several institutional and contextual differences between the U.S. and British hegemonies that may be important for understanding how new lead industries are related to geopolitics. The United States's reliance on multilateral institutions, which have persisted and supported U.S. leadership despite a long decline since the mid-1970s, is one example. This and the high concentration of global military power under U.S. control may be important factors in the future of economic concentration (Gilpin 2001). It is plausible that the greater institutionalization of multilateral institutions, the greater degree of concentration of military power among core powers, and the greater extent of financial globalization will allow the U.S. to maintain its centrality in the global system for longer than Britain was able to do even in the absence of major profitable exports. Both the differences and the similarities between hegemonies need to be taken into account.

Many earlier studies of biotechnology tried to create accurate economic indicators that could be used to forecast future trends in the biotech industry. Our research project is the next logical step in the twenty-year effort to understand and document the evolution of biotechnology in the global political economy. Our project makes use of the statistical data that has emerged from earlier studies to build parameterized models that take into consideration the effects of public opinion, foreign competition, global political climate, and the historical growth curves of previous lead industries. 

Our research focuses upon the geopolitical aspects and consequences of the food-producing and medical biotechnology industries. How will these industries affect the global distribution of economic and military power in the next decades?  Will they be big money-making successes that will help to facilitate another round of United States economic hegemony? Or will they mainly absorb public and private capital investments without bringing commensurable profits, and so contribute to the United States’s economic decline relative to competing countries abroad? These questions can best be answered by comparing biotechnology with earlier new lead industries and the roles they have played in prior hegemonic rises and declines.  Our research time-maps the worldwide loci and timing of:


v                  Medical and food-producing biotechnology research and development,

v                  Medical and food-producing biotechnology firms that are developing products, and

v                  Public attitudes toward biotechnological research and products.

v                  National and global policies that are intended to regulate and test genetically engineered products, and to regulate medical biotechnology research and development.


        In research we make a rough division between medical biotechnology and food-producing biotechnology, though we recognize that some firms, especially those that manufacture industrial biochemical products are involved in both of these categories.  We make this distinction in order to examine how these different kinds of biotechnology may by related quite differently to public attitudes.  Agricultural biotechnology is the application of genomics to create new crops, new sources of animal protein, and to protect crops, humans and domesticated animals from pests.  Much of agricultural biotechnology is intended to improve the human food supply by lowering the costs of production and by improving the products.  Medical biotechnology is intended to improve human health by developing new medicines and techniques for preventing diseases, curing ailments, producing products for transplants and improving the genetic makeup of individuals.

        We compare the biotechnology sector with the information technology and nuclear power industries. The latter is particularly important because it is a case of a global industry that experienced a significant contraction because of public resistance and political regulation. This observation challenges the contention in the OTA study (1984) that public opinion is a relatively less important factor influencing the development of an industrial sector.

        In addition to comparing new lead industries to one another, we will examine the ways in which new lead industries interact. Much has been written about the interaction between information technology and biotechnology in research, and some commercialization efforts are clearly combinations of the two, e.g., bioelectronics. But information technology has also lowered the cost of long-distance communication so greatly that the “tyranny of distance” has been massively reduced (Rosenau 1999). And this has consequences for any region’s or national society’s efforts to garner technological rents. Scientists communicate with each other so rapidly and effectively by means of Internet collaboratories and email that new discoveries diffuse rapidly to all the corners of the world.  This, the internationalization of higher education, and the willingness to pay high salaries for talented migrants, has made it possible for new centers of biotechnology research to rapidly emerge in places like India, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, the Peoples’ Republic of China and Hong Kong. Modelski and Thompson (1996) contend that the information revolution may well prevent any single country from developing a competitive advantage in new lead industries, and so may halt the centuries-old process of hegemonic rise and fall.[3]

            Several scenarios regarding growth of biotech profitability and potential impacts on U.S. economic centrality will be modeled. Data on biotech business history and resistance to genetically modified foods and food inputs will be employed to examine the likelihood of these scenarios.    


New Lead Industries and the Hegemonic Sequence

New lead technologies have long been important causes of the rise and prolongation of hegemony in the modern world-system. The political and military powers of states in the modern world-system are facilitated and sustained by competitive advantages in the production of highly profitable goods. Rising hegemons (or “world leaders” in the terminology of Modelski and Thompson 1996) manage to innovate new profitable modes of trade and production that allow them to finance political and military advantages over other states.  Thus the sequence of new lead technologies and their distribution across potentially competing core states is an important subject of study for understanding both the past and the future of hegemonic rise and fall and world politics.

The hegemonic sequence has alternated between two structural situations as hegemonic core powers rise and fall: hegemony and hegemonic rivalry. The three hegemonies of the modern world-system have been the Dutch in the 17th century, the British in the nineteenth century and the hegemony of the United States in the twentieth century. Political scientists  and sociologists have studied the process of hegemonic rise and decline mainly by periodizing hypothesized stages. Exceptions are Modelski and Thompson’s (1988) study of the distribution of naval power capacity since the fifteenth century, and Modelski and Thompson’s (1996) quantification of the rise of new lead industries.[4]

Recent research by Joachim Rennstich (2001, 2004) retools Giovanni Arrighi’s (1994) formulation of the reorganizations of the institutional structures that connected finance capital with imperial structures to facilitate the emergence of larger and larger hegemons over the last six centuries. Modelski and Thompson (1996) argued that the British successfully managed to enjoy two “power cycles,”[5] one in the eighteenth and another in the nineteenth century. With this precedent in mind, Rennstich considers the possibility that the U.S. might succeed itself in the twenty-first century. Rennstich’s analysis of the organizational, cultural and political requisites of the contemporary new lead industries – information technology and biotechnology – imply that the United States has a large comparative advantage that will most probably lead to another round of U.S. pre-eminence in the world-system.[6]

New lead industries typically follow a growth curve in which a period of innovation and relatively slow growth is followed by a period of implementation, adaptation and rapid growth as the technologies spread, which is later followed by a period of saturation in which growth slows down (Storper and Walker 1989). The logistic or S-curve is the hypothetical form, which is only approximated in the actual records of new lead industries in economic history.

New lead industries are important as the bases of hegemonic rises because they have huge spin-offs for the national economies in which they first emerge, spurring growth far beyond the original sectors in which they appear, and because they generate “technological rents.” Technological rents are the large profits that return to innovators because they enjoy a monopoly over their inventions.  The first firm to market a calculator that calculated a square root at the press of a key was able to sell that calculator for several hundreds of dollars.  Now one can buy these for $4.00 in the checkout line at the supermarket. Patents, legal protections of monopolies justified by the idea that technological innovation needs to be rewarded, can extend the period in which technological rents may be garnered. But all products eventually follow the “product cycle” in which technological rents are reduced because competing producers enter the market, and profits are reduced to a small percentage of the immediate cost of production. Inputs such as labor costs, raw materials, and transport costs become the major determinants of profitability as a production becomes more standardized and routine (Vernon 1966, 1971). 

The ability to innovate new products and to stay at the profitable edge of the product cycle is one of the most important bases of successful core production in the modern world-system. Products typically move to the semiperiphery or the periphery as production becomes routinized. The cotton textile industry was a new lead industry in the early nineteenth century, but it spread from the English midlands to other core states and to semiperipheral locations (such as New England, and later the U.S. South), and eventually it moved on to the periphery.  Thus the product cycle is important in the reproduction of the core/periphery hierarchy, but it is also important in determining relative competitive advantages within the core. Some core countries are better than others at innovation and implementation of new lead technologies, and it is the ability to concentrate these by means of strategic research and development activities, usually including important public investments and coordination of educational institutions and industry, that allows some core countries to do better than others. 

The United States has had huge advantages over competing core countries since World War II.  Because the United States is a continental-sized country with a huge “home market” that is a substantial share of the world economy, it has been rather difficult for contenders to out-compete the United States simply because that nation is so large. That said, the United States’s share of world GDP decreased from 1945 to 1992 (see Figure 2).[7]

Note: 12 WEC are twelve western European countries that became members of the European Union

Figure 2: Core States Share of World GDP, 1820-1998.


In 1992 the United States’s share again began to increase, while the East Asian crisis led the Japanese share to decline after a long rise. Some observers have attributed this circumstance to a reemergence of U.S. economic hegemony based on successes in information technology. Rennstich (2002,2004) contends that the United States has cultural and political advantages over Europe and Japan that enable its workforce and business enterprises to adapt more quickly to technological changes and that these advantages, combined with the huge size of the U.S. domestic market, will serve as the basis for a new “power cycle” of U.S. concentration of economic comparative advantage based on information technology and biotechnology.

        Other scholars have a different interpretation of the recent trends. The reversal of the downward trend in Figure 1 is interpreted by Arrighi and Silver (1999) as the functional equivalent of the “Edwardian belle epoque” that occurred during the salad days of finance capitalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century decline of British hegemony. Many observers have noted that the rise to centrality of finance capital has been a key element of economic globalization in recent decades (e.g. Sassen 2001, Henwood 1998).  Arrighi (1994) points out that this shift from the centrality of trade and production toward accumulation based on financial services is typical of late periods in the “systemic cycles of accumulation” and signifies the decline of the contemporary hegemon. The comparative advantage of the hegemon in new lead industries declines as challengers rise, but the old hegemon is able to continue to make profits because of its monetary, financial and military advantages.

        The reversal in the 1990s of the United States’s downward trend shown in Figure 1 was contemporaneous with a huge reversal in the U.S. balance of payments. A large inflow of foreign investment in bonds, stocks and property beginning in the early 1990s turned the United States into one of the world’s most foreign-indebted national economies and was arguably an important contributor to the high growth rates and incredibly long stock market boom of the 1990s. This massive balance of payments surplus helped to offset the United States’s equally huge balance of trade deficit. The dot.com stock bubble that burst in 2000 was a typical example of how financial speculation can create profits by means of selling “securities” rather than by selling real products that people buy and use. In such an economy, the symbols of value (money, financial securities) become the product (Peterson 2003).

The “new economy speak” of the last decade was typical of periods of financial speculation in which hypothetical future earning streams are alleged to be represented in the value of securities. But the stock market operates according to a middle-run time horizon. Profits need to be made within the next few years. Investments that do not pay a return sooner than a decade hence are nearly valueless in conventional financial calculations. This is why basic science is considered a public good that is usually financed by governments. It is not usually reasonable to expect a financial return soon enough for private investors, even venture capitalists, to assume the necessary risks.

An important part of the availability of public and private investments in U.S. biotechnology during the 1990s was directly or indirectly linked with the huge inflow of international investments into the United States. This was based both on the massive expansion of financial capitalism and on the beliefs of foreign investors that the U.S. had a great lead in information and biotechnology.


High Technology Industries as New Lead Industries

            High technology industries are identified as science-based industries that manufacture products while performing above-average levels of research and development (OECD 1989).  Currently, these industries include aerospace, pharmaceuticals, computers and office machinery, communication equipment, and scientific medical equipment .[8]  Although no single methodology exists for identifying high-technology industries, most calculations rely on a comparison of industry R&D expenditures, the number of scientists, engineers, and technicians employed, and the total of the industry’s shipments (NSB 2004).     

            The global demand for high technology products is growing at a faster rate than other manufactured goods, and as a result, driving international economic development (NSB 2004).  Specifically, from 1980 to 2001, production of high technology goods grew at an inflation-adjusted average annual rate of 6.5%-and as high as 8.9% during the technological boom of the late 1990’s- with outputs doubling from 7.7% of global production of all manufactured goods in 1980 to 15.8% in 2001.  During this same time period, the inflation-adjusted average annual rate for all other manufactured goods grew at a mere 2.4%.  Until the year 2000, the United States has continually dominated the international market for high technology goods with outputs fluctuating between 29% and 33%.  In 2001 though, the U.S. global market share slipped slightly to 32%.  At the same time, growth rates regarding global market shares of high technology goods demonstrated remarkable increases.  The South Korean market share sky rocketed from a meager .9% in 1980 to 7.1% in 2001.  Even more impressive perhaps is the case of China, growing from the same .9% global market share as South Korea in 1980 to an astounding 8.7% in 2001.  

            High technology industries are driving economic development because of their consistent ability to produce products with greater levels of added value above and beyond other manufacturing industries and increased tendency to be more successful in foreign markets (NSB 2004).[9]  This value added revenue to high technology products is thus results in higher wages for workers, higher profits for investors, and increased R&D after production costs are covered.  Higher profits and increased R&D tend also to allow for expanded business opportunities and the development of future innovations.  In the United States alone, high technology industries have consistently delivered products with 30% more value added than other manufacturing industries.   


Biotechnology as a New Lead Industry

        In order for biotechnology to function as a new lead industry that could serve as a basis for a new round of U.S. economic hegemony, several conditions would have to be met. Investments in biotechnology would have to produce a large number of products that can be profitably sold, and these would need to be purchased within the United States and in the world market.  Firms producing these biotechnology products would need to be able to obtain technological rents over a period of time long enough to recoup the costs of research and development. Additionally, public investment would also need to also be recouped, lest the private accumulation amount only to a transfer from taxpayers to private investors. Finally, the biotechnology industry would need to serve as a source of spin-offs for the rest of the U.S. economy to a degree greater than in the national economies of competing powers.

        Both the OTA (1984) and the DOC (2002) identified several possible factors that could be key to U.S. international competitiveness in biotechnology (in order of allegedly decreasing importance):


Ø          Financing and tax incentives for firms;

  Ø          Government funding for basic and applied research;

  Ø          Personnel availability and training;

  Ø          Health, safety and environmental regulation;

  Ø          Intellectual property law;

  Ø          University/industry relations;

  Ø          Anti-trust law;

  Ø          International technology transfer, investment, and trade;

  Ø          Targeted public policies in biotechnology; and

  Ø          Public perceptions.


This is a good list of factors, though some important things are missing and it may turn out that relegation of public perceptions to the bottom of the list was a mistake.  Our study considers these additional contextual processes and trends along with the factors specified by the OTA and DOC.

        Figure 3 illustrates our key hypotheses about factors that influence the likelihood of the biotechnology industry serving as a basis for a new round of U.S. hegemony.  We note that the huge decreases in transportation costs and communications costs in the most recent wave of globalization have increased the speed at which technologies and new industries can spread to competing regions.  It is widely believed that the research and development costs associated with the biotech industry make it difficult for new centers to emerge, and this circumstance is alleged to be part of the basis for the U.S. lead in biotechnology. It is true that the U.S. research universities and publicly funded research have been important sources of both medical and agricultural biotechnological advances. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and federal agricultural policies have long played an important role in agricultural biotechnology (Kloppenburg 1988a, 1988b; Pistorius and van Wijk 1999).  The United States has also taken the lead in the creation of an international patent regime to protect “intellectual property” (the so-called TRIPS agreement) that should, in principle, allow firms to recoup research and development costs through technological rents.  Yet efforts to enforce international intellectual property regimes have been undercut by U.S. unilateralism as well as by challenges based on the needs of poor people in Third World countries for AIDS drugs.  Some scholars support the idea that agricultural biotechnology should be provided inexpensively to small farmers in poor countries (e.g., deJanvry et al 1999).  Such programs might be helpful to poor countries, but they would also undercut the ability of producers and marketers of agro-biotechnology products from charging technological rents.

Figure 3:  Diffusion and Resistance Lower the Impact of Biotechnology

on U.S. Economic Comparative Advantage


        Allegedly high start-up costs of biotechnology research and development should retard the emergence of competitors. This relationship is widely regarded as part of the explanation for why biotechnology research, development and commercialization in Europe and Japan have lagged behind that in the United States.  Still there have been some developments that cast doubt on these characterizations. The Peoples’ Republic of China began a substantial state-sponsored initiative in biotechnology in the 1980s and many important creations of this program have been implemented in Chinese agriculture on a huge scale, with apparently great beneficial effects. Perhaps the large size of semiperipheral China allows massive resources to be concentrated on targeted research and development efforts, making this development not so surprising. But Singapore, a city-state in Southeast Asia, has also succeeded in establishing a successful biotechnology industry by importing scientific talent from abroad. These start-ups imply that entry into the biotechnology industry is not as restricted as many have assumed, and that competition for shares of world demand for the products of biotechnology will speed up the product cycle, making it more difficult for particular countries, including the United States, to garner technological rents for very long.  In fact, in 2001 U.S. trade in intellectual property demonstrated a 5% decrease from the year before, the first such decline since 1987 (NSB 2004)

            Diffusion of technology may also be increased through cross-industry and cross-national technology linkages.  Since the 1980’s, the speed, complexity, and multidisciplinary nature of scientific research has increasingly encouraged technology alliances for the purpose of increased innovation and long term competitiveness.  The outsourcing and collaboration created by these alliances are attempts to reduce costs, expedite projects, and complement internal R&D capabilities.  Between 1991 and 2001, U.S. companies engaged in more than 4,600 of the total 5,892 research and technology alliances worldwide, involving partnerships with other businesses as well as with universities and government laboratories.  By 2001, a significant majority of these involved biotechnology and IT technology, with biotechnology outpacing IT technology since the year 2000 (NSB  2004). 

            Many of these international alliances are fostered by the continually increasing internationalization of higher education.  Along with generating these cross-national technological linkages, U.S. trained foreign born researchers who return to home greatly enhance the quality and competitiveness of their countries science and engineering   industries.  The emergence of China’s successful participation in the Human Genome Project of the 1990’s was facilitated through the recruitment of Chinese scientists trained abroad.  Also, once predominantly represented, the number of Taiwanese and South Korean researchers trained in the United States has recently began to decline, presumably due to the improved S&E programs, R&D institutions, and educational institutions developed by the previously returned U.S. trained researchers (NSB 2004).  Not surprisingly, many of the recent medical biotechnology developments have come from Taiwan and South Korea.

            Another factor that may affect the profitability of commercialized biotechnology is consumer resistance to genetically modified foods (Buttel 1999). Japanese consumers have refused to purchase genetically modified soybeans, and so Japan ceased to import these GMOs in 1999. Japan’s decision prompted Canada to stop growing genetically modified soybeans, and then several other countries announced that they were also going to ban the growth of GMO crops in order to exploit the market niche created by countries that have banned GMO imports.

        In England, McDonalds restaurants were persuaded to stop using genetically modified inputs by a consumer boycott. Significant popular resistance to genetically modified foods has emerged in Europe and parts of Asia. This could be an important factor affecting the profitability of food-producing biotechnology. Other important factors that may affect the profitability of food-producing biotechnology in Europe may have nothing to do with the science itself.  A series of dramatic health scares in the late twentieth century, such as HIV contaminated blood supplies and BSE infected cattle have created an inflated level of risk aversion related to the environment and the food supply.  Amazingly, known health hazards such as cigarette smoking are regarded with less concern than GMOs.  On the one hand, for instance, Europeans see the negative consequences of smoking as clearly identified and the risk involved as assumed by the individual who chooses to smoke.  On the other hand, though the risks of GMOs have not been determined, consumers in Europe and Japan want GMO products to be clearly labeled as such (Bonny 2003). 

        Despite their success abroad, campaigns to raise awareness have so far not been very successful in the United States. Public opinion surveys carried out by the National Science Foundation from 1985 to 1999 demonstrate American approval ratings of genetic engineering hovering roughly around 45%, while disapproval ratings fluctuated between 40% and 35% (Figure 4). From 1999 to 2001 both levels of approval and disapproval dropped 5% respectively. During the same time period, a more wait and see attitude grew from 12% to 28% (NSB 2002).  This may be partly due to the cultural factors that Rennstich (2002,2004) has mentioned as explanations for the U.S. comparative advantage. This could quickly change if experiments with genetically modified organisms lead to major calamities. The decision by the Monsanto Corporation to end its development of “Roundup Ready” wheat in May of 2004 appears to have been partly the result of fears that GMO bread would be seen as undesirable even within the United States.

            We have already noted that information technology may have made technological rents much harder to concentrate within a single nation. It may also be the case that the low cost of transnational communication due to advances in information technology makes it much easier for transnational social movements to mobilize resistance to controversial new technologies, and this may play an important role in the future of biotechnology.

We make the distinction between medical and food-producing biotechnology in the diagram produced in Figure 2 because we believe that it is likely that public opinion will affect these subsectors differently. People’s food preferences and choices are highly conditioned by cultural beliefs and practices, as well as collective and individual identities.  People are not usually willing to take risks regarding food consumption, except under famine conditions. In most of the world today, but especially in the large markets of the core, food purchases are discretionary, and so they can easily be influenced by public opinion and attitudes.  Medicinal choices are rather different. Doctors prescribe the most profitable pharmaceuticals, and people are not likely to object to the use of a drug that is produced by biotechnology if the drug is alleged to be effective in the treatment of acute medical problems. 

In a cross-national study involving Europe, Canada and the United States from 1996 to 2000, Gaskell and Bauer reported approval ratings of over 80% in all three regions when asked about the usefulness of biotechnology in the detection of genetically inherited diseases.  Regarding biotechnology and the creation of new medications and vaccines, 80% of Americans and Canadians and 70% of Europeans approved.  Interestingly though, many of these highly regarded medicinal goals are potentially only possible through current highly controversial methods, specifically human cloning and stem cell research. 

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that, upon specific triggering, posses the ability to become specific cells.  This unique ability allows for the development of cell based therapies, known as regenerative or reparative medicine, which will allow for the treatment and prevention of diseases, disorders, and birth defects through the creation of new, healthy cells.  Stem cells can be found in two types, embryonic and adult (somatic).  As indicated by the nomenclature, embryonic stem cells are derived from in-vitro fertilized human embryos while somatic stem cells can be found in adult organs (although they are rare and difficult to find).  Although both types have their pros and cons regarding research, embryonic stem cells are generally considered to be more useful given their ability to be come any type of cell (not just the type from the organ they are derived from) and they can be easily harvested (relatively) through human cloning.  Ironically, the very traits that make embryonic stem cells so useful, makes both them and the science itself extremely unpopular (NIH).

Public opinion in America regarding stem cell research can be extremely volatile due to its complexity, the distinctions that must be made between general and therapeutic cloning, and its intersection with abortion related issues regarding when “life” begins.  In 2003, 90% of survey respondents reported that they believe general cloning of human beings to be morally unacceptable, but when questioned about therapeutic cloning (as described above), opposition to the practice dropped to 48%.  Of those polled, only 8% described themselves as havening a “very clear” understanding between the two, while 92% described themselves as “somewhat clear” or below.

 Tendencies to support or not support stem cell research tend to track closely with opinions of abortion, as well as with level of conservatism and religiosity of the respondent (themselves highly correlated).  In a Time Magazine national telephone poll, 20% of respondents agreed with President Bush’s restrictions on embryonic stem cell research ( 29% of which identified as born again Christian), 22% agreed that government funding should not be used to support embryonic stem cell research (29% identified as born again Christian), and 37% did not believe other states should take California’s lead in creating state sponsored initiatives (49% identified as born again Christian).  On the contrary, 50% of respondents agreed with the Californian initiative (33% identified as born again Christian), and 53% believed other states should follow suit (41% identified as born again Christian).

The effects of religious conservatism on U.S. research capabilities are already being felt.  Recently, South Korean researchers accomplished a major scientific breakthrough involving days-old donated embryos.  Unlike the United States, where in 2001 President Bush halted federal funding for stem cell research due to pressure form religious conservatives, scientists there receive full support from the government including lack of restrictions on research and funding.  This support comes despite similar protests from the Korean Christian community, which constitutes half of its population (SFG.com)


Figure 4: U.S. Public Opinion of Genetic Engineering, 1985-2001

Much of the recent attention paid to the international aspects of agricultural and medical biotechnology impacts has focused on North/South issues about patenting of genomes and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the effects of the industrialization of agriculture on peasantries in the Third World (Shiva 1997; McMichael 2001). But there is also a North/North aspect that has emerged with strong resistance in Japan, the United Kingdom and Europe to genetically modified foods. Here is another way in which globalization studies are relevant for understanding the potential trajectories of new lead industries.  To the extent that biotechnology is perceived as new technology in which the United States has a significant advantage, anti-U.S. sentiment may fuel resistance to biotechnology. Declining hegemons use their remaining advantages in financial centrality and military power in ways that serve narrower interests than during the golden age of the hegemony. This situation causes resentment, which proved to be an important factor in stimulating anti-globalization movements and challenges from other core and non-core regions during the British hegemonic decline.

Reid (2001) cites European backlash against biotechnology and GMOs as a response to workers frustrations against globalization and the United States‘s dominance in the production of new technologies.  Because many of the emerging biotechnology companies are U.S. owned, Europeans see all GMOs as products of the United States, and thus benefiting only the U.S. economy (NSB 2002). One senses that the Italian glorification of “slow food” and the attacks on McDonalds in France and England are at least partly due to resentment toward a United States that is increasingly seen as pursuing narrow and self-interested policies. Ironically, this generalized anti-GMO sentiment slows the effort of European companies in developing a position in the GMO industries.  

        To the extent that the causal relations in Figure 3 are future outcomes we cannot test them; however, we can quantify trends in recent decades and see how they interact temporally and spatially with one another using time-series analysis, and these examinations will be used to parameterize alternative models of the future. The main unit of analysis for our research is the world-system as a whole, especially those countries and transnational networks that are engaging in biotechnology research and product development, but also those countries that may become important markets for biotechnology products. We are studying trends in public opinion regarding genetically modified organisms and public policies regarding research, product testing, and regulation of both the biotech industry and of imports of genetically modified organisms. Large retailers of food products have been noticeably important players in the drama of resistance to transgenic foods because of their susceptibility to consumer boycotts, and so they need to be studied as well.

        One of the causes of hegemonic decline has been the reluctance of older economic elites to allow the emergence of new kinds of business enterprises that are perceived to threaten the older interests. Rennstich (2000) contends that the United States should suffer less from this problem than did Great Britain because it is so large and is composed of quite different regions, and also that there is some institutional separation between old and new industries. As an example he points to the NASDAQ stock exchange that specializes in new technologies, while older firms are listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Of more relevance, perhaps, are episodic efforts by the U.S. federal government to prevent the formation of business monopolies through anti-trust legislation and legal consent decrees. The fascinating comparison made by Borrus and Millstein (1984) between the semiconductor and biotechnology industries points to the crucial role that the U.S. government played in the emergence of a rather competitive electronics industry based on transistors. Much of the basic research that produced usable transistors was carried out at the Bell Laboratories, a research division of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). If AT&T had been granted patents on transistors it would have controlled an emerging technology that immediately threatened its huge investments in vacuum tube equipment. The intervention of the U.S. government was also facilitated by the huge amounts of money that were made available for aerospace, communications and electronics research under the guise of “defense” spending after the Korean War. This investment paved the way for the computer-satellite and telecommunications revolution (Markusen and Yudken 1992).

        Much has been made of the fact that only the United States has seen the emergence of a large crop of “new biotechnology firms” (NBFs). These are small start-ups funded mainly by venture capital and the scientific entrepreneurs who start them to commercialize biotechnology. Other competing countries have sought to incubate NBFs because they seem to be more innovative and dedicated than the research and development divisions of larger firms. In contrast, Borrus and Millstein (1984) point out that these start-ups have little ability to bring products to market on a large scale, and so they usually affiliate with, or are bought by, older large firms in the relevant industries.  In the case of biotechnology there has been little government anti-trust effort to counter-act the tendency of the older firms to sit on new products that threaten their profits in established product lines. Whether or not these factors can account for some of the slowness associated with parts of the biotechnology industry in becoming productive and profitable is a matter that bears investigation.


Research Designs

      Our project employs two different research strategies in order to answer the questions described above.  The first is a strategy of historical incorporated comparisons[10] of industrial sectors in the core and non-core countries of the modern world-system since 1850, and the second utilizes a more formal and quantitative approach to the study of the new biotechnology in the global system since 1980.

The historical incorporated comparison part of the project compares both the old and new biotechnology with the other main new lead industries of the British and U.S. hegemonies. This approach allows us to focus on the patterns of diffusion of new lead industries that occurred during the period of British hegemonic decline after 1870. It was during this period that Britain lost its former ability to concentrate the profits and spin-offs of new lead technologies within its national economy and its colonial empire. Of relevance here were the old biotechnology (plant and animal breeding, fertilizers), steel, telegraph and radio, electrification, petroleum, industrial chemicals, bicycles, automobiles and etc.

 We will also use the historical incorporated comparison method to study the post World War II emergence and development of information technology and nuclear energy with an eye to both comparison with and interaction with the new biotechnology. In practice, we will rely on the evidence that has been produced by those business, economic, and technology historians and social scientists who have studied these industries. We shall also search for relevant primary data sources, but what we find will probably be too patchy to allow for a systematic quantitative approach.

The second research design employs a quantitative time-mapping approach to the new biotechnology as we have defined it above.  We use the definitions of new biotechnology and the firms that are commercializing it developed by the DOC (2002). The main strategy is to time-map the emergence of biotechnology research, education, commercialization, and profitability on a global scale, along with the consequent critical discourse about biotechnology issues.

This effort involves globally geocoding and time referencing the emergence and growth of basic and applied biotechnology-related programs in institutions of higher learning, and government agencies from 1980 to 2005. We code the dates these institutions were founded, as well as their sizes and their headquarters and subsidiary locations. This process will allow us to track the rate and locations of diffusion of biotechnology research and development.  We update previous studies and recode them for purposes of testing our hypotheses.  In addition, we expand our study to all the countries of the world that have research and development programs in basic and applied biotechnology.[11]

        We will use a similar approach to the formation of firms that are involved in biotechnology commercialization. Here we use the definitions of biotechnology-producing firms developed by the OTA (1984). We code firms according to size, degree of specialization, date of foundation (and termination), and the type biotechnology they are working on. Again, we will update and expand previous studies to include all the countries of the world that have such firms. We study the distribution of small and large firms involved in biotechnology research and production in each country, but will not study firms that supply biotechnology-producing firms. One important data-set on biotechnology firms is the Bioscan Database (n.d.), which reports the number of employees, major investors, foundation date of the firm, date of beginning biotech research and development, current products, size of facilities, products in development and stock history.

We intend to time-map basic and applied research that is both publicly and privately funded, though, in practice, information about private research funding is usually proprietary. Efforts to gather internationally comparable data on investments in biotechnology research and development were begun by the OTA (1984), and the United Nations Agenda 21 (UN 1995) initiative asserted the desirability of such comparable statistics. Not much has been accomplished, however, and so it is necessary to use proxy measures of investment in order to build measurement models for estimating the growth and diffusion of biotechnology development.  We will also use other standard measures for crossnational comparisions such as patents granted, and scientific articles published.  We will use the structural equations approach to multiple indicator measurement error modeling that combines the several different indicators of biotechnology activity for crossnational comparisons. This approach will help to reduce the errors that are due to important national differences in the meaning of individual indicators.[12]

We study both large and small biotechnology companies, their products and sources of income and the similarities and differences across structures of biotechnology industries in different countries, and in comparison with other industries.  We also study trends and international differences in public attitudes toward biotechnology as well as the emergence of government regulations regarding biotechnology. 

        We will rely on industry studies and national accounts statistics to estimate changes in the contribution of biotechnology industries to the GDP of all the countries that have biotechnology research, development or commercialization. We will study the network of international trade (both imports and exports) since 1980, with attention to the product categories within which biotechnology products are imbedded. It is impossible to distinguish with currently available trade statistics (e.g., International Monetary Fund Direction of Trade data) that portion of, for example, the trade in seeds that is composed of genetically modified seeds. But analysis of the changing structure of world trade in pharmaceutical products, grains, seeds for planting, and specialized and industrial chemicals that are know to be produced through biotechnology will allow us to estimate the changes in the size of the potential markets, the current market shares of the United States and competing countries, and to examine the international trade impacts of events such as the Japanese ban on genetically modified soy bean imports. This research will allow us to produce a global time-map of the temporal and geographical expansion of the biotechnology sector.

        The second major focus of our quantitative research will be on public attitudes toward biotechnology research and products. Here we will content analyze articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines all over the world since 1980 that report on activities in the biotechnology sector and on issues raised about the benefits and costs of biotechnology research and commercialization. We rely on the NexisLexis service to locate these articles.[13]  We code expressions of opinion that indicate positive, negative or neutral attitudes toward different kinds of biotechnology using the typologies listed above. These articles are geocoded and time-coded so that we are able to track trends and changes in attitudes in all the countries of the world. We also pay special attention to protest events, as well as to public and private conferences that are relevant for public discourse about biotechnology. We also intend to study the emergence of transnational and international nongovernmental organizations that are involved in issues regarding biotechnology.

        The third major focus of research is a survey of formal public regulation of biotechnology as it has developed since 1980. Local, provincial and national state-level and international organization regulations are coded as revealed in news articles and formal reports of governmental and legislative agencies in all the countries of the world. We also track changes in patent laws and their enforcement and disputes about regulation. 

            Using the number of technology patents as an indicator of success in a particular industry has several limitations.  First, many inventions in various countries are not patented at all due to already existing protection of industrial trade secrets.  Second, different industries and technology areas do not exhibit the same propensity to patent their innovations, thus making cross comparisons difficult.  Finally, the relative importance of inventions patented to a particular field is not always consistent.  The 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty established the precedent that genetic information could be patented.  The problem was genetic information was being patented even though it had no known use or function.  Thus, in 2001 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office required that all genetic organism patents requests must first establish at least one credibly and useful utility.  Europe and Japan created similar requirements in 1998 and 1999 respectively.  It is possible then that the number of patents form 1980-2001 are exaggerated or inflated.

            In an attempt to address these inconsistencies, a new database was recently created through an international partnership of patent offices in the United States, Europe, and Japan.  In order for an invention to be included, a patent request must have been filed in all three of the above countries.  Due to the high costs involved in filing for protection in all three markets, it is assumed that such an invention is believed to be valuable enough to be marketed in all three areas, as well as generate enough profits to justify the cost.  Although still not a perfect measure, it is an extremely improved indicator. 

        The results of these three quantitative research efforts will allow us to study the spatio-temporal relationships between the expansion of the biotech sector and the emergence of both support for and resistance to biotechnology. Then we shall use these results to construct alternative scenarios of the future growth and spatial expansion of commercialized biotechnology, and its impact on the world economy and on the relative position of the United States. Submodels will be constructed for each industry in which biotechnology is involved because of important differences between these industries (see OECD 1989: 53-55).

        During the preliminary stages of our research project, we have been able to locate a large collection of primary and secondary data sources that will be drawn upon during our study.  These data sets currently run from 1985 to 2003, and many will be updated annually through out our study so as to provide the most up to date data possible.       

        Data regarding public opinion of biotechnology will be drawn from the National Science Board Science & Engineering Indicators 1996-2002, and the European Union Eurobarometer 2002.  Both are excellent sources providing data for opinions on agricultural and pharmaceuticals biotechnology separately, as an industry and science, as well as legislature involving the labeling of biotechnology products. Responses are also broken down by education, sex, and in the case of the Eurobarometer, country of origin.

        Science & Engineering Indicators will also serve as a data source for U.S. and foreign trade statistics regarding biotechnology, as well as trade statistics for nuclear and IT industries which will be used for comparison.  Historical data for all three industries is currently available from 1985 to the present.  Proprietary sources such www.bioscan.org, www.economy.com and www.isaaa.org will allow us to break down biotechnology trade statistics into agricultural and pharmaceutical subgroups.  These sources will also allow us to time-map company formation and level of adoption, and price of biotechnology products by region.  In the case of agricultural biotechnology, we will be able to specify adoption rates by trait, crop and country.

            Analysis of the relative competitiveness of various countries will be based upon their national orientation toward technological development (level at which business, government and culture encourage high technology development), their socioeconomic infrastructure (underlying physical, financial, and human resources needed to support the development of a high technology industry), their technological infrastructure (level of R&D available and ability to link R&D to industry) and their productive capacity (availability of skilled labor, number of indigenous high-technology companies).  These assessments, including the raw data for their conclusions are available through Science & Engineering Indicators, and will also be expanded to include countries not currently within its scope. 



We shall employ formal network analysis, time-series analysis and spatio-temporal structural equations modeling to study changes in the position of the United States since 1980 in the global biotechnology industry. We will also utilize GIS technology to visualize the changing position of the United States over this period of time and to produce a Biotechnology Global Time-Map. These analyses will be combined with our comparative historical studies of other new lead industries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to produce an overall assessment of the scenarios in which biotechnology does or does not serve as an important basis for a renewal of U.S. economic hegemony in the next two decades. We will estimate the sizes of effects under different conditions in order to parameterize models of alternative future scenarios. Our research on historical comparisons and the quantitative nature of recent trends will allow us to estimate the probabilities of these future scenarios.




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[1] Time-mapping is the geocoding and temporal coding of events and observations of attributes.


[2] In 1984 the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment defined biotechnology as the industrial use of recombinant DNA, cell fusion and novel bioprocessing techniques (OTA 1984).

[3] As political geographer Peter Taylor (1996) so wittily puts it, the U.S. may be the “last of the hegemons.”

[4] The most important of these studies are those of Boswell and Sweat (1991), Modelski and Thompson 1996, Thompson (2000) and Arrighi and Silver (1999).

[5] “Power cycle” is Modelski and Thompson’s term for what Arrighi (1994) calls “systemic cycles of accumulation” and Chase-Dunn (1998) calls the “hegemonic sequence.”

[6] Rennstich (2004) does not rely entirely on biotechnology as the key new lead industry that will fuel another round of U.S. economic hegemony. He distinguished between two phases of information technology, and his prediction of renewed U.S. economic supremacy posits the expansion of the second phase of IT.


[7] See Chase-Dunn et al 2002.

[8] In designating these high-technology industries, OECD took into account both direct and indirect R&D intensities for 13 countries: the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Ireland.

[9] Gross value added equals gross output minus the cost of intermediate inputs and supplies.


[10] Philip McMichael (1990) has developed the strategy of historical incorporated comparison that compares the development of institutions within their world historical context. This is distinct from the more usual strategy of comparative history that emphasizes variation finding across cases. Historical incorporated comparison examines similarities and differences as well as temporal and geographical connections among cases. A fine recent example of this kind of research Beverly Silver’s (2003) study of global labor unrest since the 1840s.

[11] Special attention will be paid to the United States as a whole, and regions within the U.S. (North East, Midatlantic, Southern California and Northern California), Britain, France, Switzerland, Ireland, Israel, Cuba, Hong Kong, the Peoples’ Republic of China, Singapore, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Japan, South Korea, India and Taiwan.

[12] For example, patents of biotech processes have been used to indicate the growth of economic activity, but this may be a problematic indicator for purposes of crossnational comparison because some countries (e.g. the United States) seem to spend far more effort on patents than other countries do.

[13] NexisLexis will allow us to search the whole text of articles from the Associate Press, BBC, Japan Economic Newswire, Latin American Newsletters, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Xinhua News Service from 1980 to the present.