Measuring Global Biotech: The Worldview

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In the latest edition of the Scientific American Worldview we continue to ask the vital question of global biotechnology development: Who is doing what, and how well are they doing it? In developing the scorecard that is a central feature of Worldview I continue to seek to identify the global leaders in biotechnology and to provide a framework that can measure the progress and potential of countries – especially ones that are not currently regarded as world leaders.

Why should countries support biotechnology, and why is it worth measuring their progress? The answer is simple: biotechnology can enable countries to improve their economies while enhancing the quality of life and health of their citizens. Biotechnology brings more than the simple promise of economic prosperity; it can also dramatically improve the quality of life of a country’s citizens. Countries with strong innovation capacities can independently develop solutions for domestic problems – such as endemic health issues and agricultural, industrial and energy needs – while those without the ability to innovate must rely on others to develop and sell them solutions.

This project is not just about broad regional comparisons – a quick examination of biotechnology company numbers, size, and revenues would give a fast answer to who the current leaders are – this project’s goal is to dig deeper into the innovation potential of individual countries and the multiple factors that should be taken into consideration. Consider, for example, size: how does one compare the productivity of the United States – the world’s largest economy – with that of a smaller nation? It is important to recognize both the advantages that come with larger size, and the increased intensity seen in many smaller countries. Furthermore, biotechnology activities are not restricted to the manufacture of products; many companies are active in services such as contract research, clinical-trial management, consulting and other activities with non-tangible outputs. As a result, the Worldview scorecard uses diverse measures – including educational attainment of a nation’s population and research and development (R&D) funding and activity – to capture the broad array of activities and factors supporting biotechnology innovation.

It is important to recognize that the scorecard should not be viewed as a simple ranking of the countries. Rather, the sum of the annual editions should be seen as measures of the relative innovation capacities of individual countries, and an opportunity to examine the factors driving change over time. When examining these data, it is important to consider that a high innovation score does not necessarily mean that a country is producing a lot of biotechnology products, or is an ideal market in which to sell biotechnology products; these measures indicate the environment and capacity for biotechnology innovation. The analysis provides a multi-faceted perspective of global biotechnology innovation, and should therefore be viewed as a tool to compare countries on multiple, not single, measures.

The response and feedback to the Worldview scorecard has been very interesting. Beyond some of the more conventional comments, we have also received some unexpected responses. Some country representatives have thanked us, despite receiving a low score, for simply being listed among the set of leading biotechnology nations. Others have complained of having too high a score, frustrating efforts to lobby for governmental support. A dynamic discussion on Turkish biotechnology has also developed on my blog.

Recognizing that numbers can only tell part of the picture, the Worldview project also includes an abundance of narratives, providing deeper perspectives on the global biotechnology industry. Check out the latest issue of Scientific American Worldview.

Yali Friedman