In summer 2011, a new strategy for Norwegian biotechnology research will be launched - based in part on the Research Council's state-of-the-art review of the field carried out in 2010.
Over 200 people attended the conference "Biotechnology and the Social Contract" organised recently by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board. Participants had the chance to provide input and discuss issues as part of the lead-up to the designation of the strategy. At the helm was Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland.
"Biotechnology is a complex and challenging discipline that plays a role in many sectors," said Minister Aasland. "It is a field whose significance may grow enormously in the areas of modern medicine, agriculture, climate research, aquaculture and industry. We must chart a course for how to guide this growth in the Norwegian context, and establish a framework for a long-term initiative.
Voice of experience
The Research Council's Biotek2012 process was based on close dialogue with the researchers and institutions themselves. There was a strong focus on identifying areas in which Norwegian biotechnology can contribute to solving the challenges facing society and strengthening national value creation.
"The Biotek2012 review documents that much has been achieved in the nationally-based biotechnology activities over the past 10 years," says Anne Kjersti Fahlvik, Executive Director of the Research Council's Division for Innovation. "A national infrastructure has been established as a basis for competence-building, and high-calibre R&D activities have been conducted."
Nevertheless, emphasises Ms Fahlvik, there is still a great need to enhance expertise and develop technology that can create value in a broad sense.
"We need to promote greater cooperation between the university and university college sector, research institutes, and trade and industry to strengthen the interface between technological advances and societal development," stresses Ms Fahlvik. "This is the only way to truly realise the potential of innovation."
Mature knowledge-based technology
The report points out that in an international perspective, biotechnology has become a mature technology. The field is constantly evolving, however, and is moving towards a knowledge-based, green economy that deals with global challenges in areas such as energy, food and health.
"Norway must actively participate in, and be prepared for, this change," continues Ms Fahlvik. "And we are ready to do this, now that we have established our expertise, research communities, infrastructure and international networks."
At the recent conference, Ms Fahlvik also summarised some of the results of the evaluation of the Large-scale Programme Functional Genomics in Norway (FUGE). Among other things, the evaluation identified a need for stronger integration of the ethical, legal and social aspects (ELSA) of biotechnology.
Furthermore Ms Fahlvik stressed the significance of interaction between researchers and policymakers. "This interaction must be an ongoing process that opens up new opportunities."
Using research findings
At the conference, Professor Andrew Webster of the University of York, England, spoke about the implications of what he calls the emerging "new social contract", in which science is becoming an integral part of society at large rather than being perceived as something separate from it.
"Once science becomes part of society, many links will develop between science and users. Science does not mean the same thing to everyone, nor in every situation ' its meaning will change depending on one's perspective. This makes it essential to consider the context within which science develops and is applied," stated Professor Webster.
Potential and obstacles
The conference demonstrated just how far biotechnology's reach extends in terms of application areas, players, challenges, commercial development and ethical and legal aspects.
One ethical challenge discussed was the relationship between wealthy and poor parts of the world, and how to use new medicines and marine resources to benefit all the world's people, not only the privileged few.
The spotlight also turned to assessing the economic value of genetic resources, as well as legal rights involved. The discussion afforded insight into how traditional cost/benefit thinking and current patent regulation need refining in order to be meaningful in this area.
Air the disagreements!
Professor Roger Strand of the University of Bergen concluded the conference by calling attention to some existing points of contention between key players with differing viewpoints on biotechnology research. There are different views on potential as well as problems.
"Many values come into play, dealing with issues such as quality of research, Norwegian jobs at stake, range of treatments to offer patients, and higher food production," said Professor Strand. He urged a re-entry of biotechnology issues into the political debate.