RALEIGH — Everybody knows that biotechnology is going to be the Next Big Thing in economic development.
At least, that’s the sentiment of everybody who is anybody — people in public office, people who wish they were in public office, and people who want to curry favor with people in public office. They’ve been instrumental here in North Carolina in pushing measures to attract biotechnology start-ups and relocations, including a plan to spend $85 million of public money in the Golden LEAF Foundation on biotech-related programs.
The problem with this line of thinking, as I observed before, is that the prospects for immediate employment gains in biotechnology aren’t all that great. There are many promising areas of research, product development, and entrepreneurial energy going on in the field, but given that virtually every political jurisdiction in the United States considers biotech to be integral to its economic success, I predict that there will be many disappointed folks out there for the foreseeable future.
A commentary in the April 12 issue of Business Week, which is unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers, offered an additional critique of all the biotech ballyhoo. John Carey, who writes on technology for the magazine, observed that many of the initial promises made two decades ago about the medical and commercial applications of biotechnology have not yet come to pass.
Carey noted that Human Genome Sciences, a private-sector pioneer in the study of human genetics, just went through a major series of layoffs and lost its CEO after the failure of several of its drugs. Other prominent initiatives and enterprises have faltered during the past couple of years. One prominent biotech researcher may have been overstating things a bit by telling Carey that, “the days of the great dream are over,” but it is worth nothing that previous promises have proven to be grandiose and unrealistic.
In the case of Human Genome Sciences, he wrote, “biotech watchers say that the company rushed to create drugs before fully understanding the underlying biology.” Sure, I’m enough of a sci fi nut to believe that we will eventually enjoy wonderous advances in the treatment of human disease, the alleviation of human suffering, and the application of genetically engineered tissues to a various of commercial products. And some useful applications are on the market now or about to be, including designer proteins for the treatment of cancer. But Carey pointed out that this latest innovation took 30 years to go from the research laboratory to the therapy-testing stage.
Something similar seems to be going on with stem-cell research. Promising as well as controversial, the experiments to date reportedly show that getting stem cells to transform into other kinds of cells, for therapeutic use, is harder than expected. “Even if the science works, no one yet has a good idea how such cells could be turned into viable products,” Carey wrote.
Biotech may well be a wonderful place to invest your long-term capital, but I’m afraid that the political classes in North Carolina and elsewhere are recklessly promising near-term benefits to our economy — 100,000 new jobs in North Carolina in 10 years, as one administration official put it — that could well prove to be pie in the sky.
Folks guess wrong all the time in making economic decisions, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a great deal right about that, because a free-market economy thrives on profit-seeking entrepreneurs who learn from their own and others’ mistakes and keep testing innovative ideas. The issue is whether taxpayers ought to be forced to invest in speculative but trendy business ventures when there are more immediate needs to address — with more immediate economic payoffs and less risk to taxpayer funds and limited-government principles.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.