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Oct 1, 2011 (Vol. 31, No. 17)

Viewing Biotech as a Social Drama

Looking at the Birth and Development of the Industry from an Anthropological Perspective

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    Usher Fleising, Ph.D.

    On March 9, 1981, Time ran a cover story, “Shaping Life in the Lab,” about the investment frenzy over the high technology of genetic manipulation and its prospects for future growth. Stock offerings for one company jumped from $35 a share to $89 in minutes.

    Funds were being diverted into small companies with no products but with expertise and know-how in gene splicing. This fresh alchemy promised revolutionary drugs for healing, a new green revolution for feeding the hungry, and environmentally safe processes for mining, refining, and removing toxic waste. Just two months prior to the cover story, Mary Ann Liebert launched Genetic Engineering News.

    There were, however, questions about the wisdom of tinkering with genes. Time quoted biologist Robert Sinsheimer, then Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz: “Do we really wish to replace the fateful but impartial workings of chance with the purposeful self-interested workings of human will?”


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    Some cultural observers maintain that from the beginning, biotech activities can be seen as a kind of play taking place within a theater of emotions where the acts include breach, crisis, redress, and re-integration. [Paul Fleet/fotolia]

    But the overwhelming sense in this story was that of an industry in its early stages of growth, a genie already out of the bottle, and of a society that would manage the benefits and the risks of this next technological adventure.

    Biotechnology stories are dramas of social living. The narratives are about scientists manipulating the building blocks of life, venture capitalists showering them with money, and self-proclaimed public guardians of risk warning of contagion from things that you cannot see. Victor Turner, an ethnographer, suggested that disruptive social processes wherever they occur (e.g., a labor strike or Watergate) can be described as a social drama in four acts: breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration (or schism).

  • Breach

    The beginning of social drama is breach—when a person or subgroup breaks a rule, norm, law, or custom either deliberately or by inward compulsion (as, for example, in pursuing scientific research). While many people stumbled into biotechnology, there was a core in the middle 1970s that deliberately, and with determination, went about turning the intellectual property of Nobel Prize research into marketable commodities. Between 1960 and 1972, 14 of 31 Nobel awards in physiology or medicine were awarded to classical genetics and molecular biology.

    Intellectual investment in molecular medicine led to the disruptive recombinant DNA technology and, for some, a crisis of technological and moral risk.

    Recombinant DNA technology, developed in 1973, gave molecular scientists the ability to join together pieces of genetic material from different species creating chimera and fashioning the conditions for sequencing the human genome. That this breach was consequential became public when molecular scientists in a fit of self-reflection placed a voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA research in 1974.

    On the economic front, declining public funding support for universities and demands from the public for payback from earlier investments in scientific research led to schemes to strategically ally industries with universities to make money for both. In 1980, 80% of the $1 billion spent on biotechnology research (worldwide) came from academic sources. By 1986, industry accounted for 67% of the $6 billion spent on biotechnology research.

    According to one industry analyst, this was the moment when “disease became a market opportunity,” a metaphor not infrequently repeated at biofinance conferences. Individuals trained in public labs, with thoughts of university positions to follow, found themselves thinking about how their experiments would look in the next quarterly business report.

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