Monday, June 15, 2009

Cities and States Bet Big on Biotech

I wonder sometimes: is biotech is just too sexy for governments to turn down? I mean, setting aside the qualms some people have about some kinds of stem cell research, biotech is just cooler than cool. It's new. It's hip. It promises cures for the diseases that afflict us and for vexing environmental problems. What sane politician wouldn't want to invest public money in a technology like that?

Check out this story, from the NY Times, on public investment in biotech: Despite Odds, Cities Race to Bet on Biotech
Where a textile mill once drove the economy of this blue-collar town northeast of Charlotte, an imposing neoclassical complex is rising, filled with fine art, Italian marble and multimillion-dollar laboratory equipment. Three buildings, one topped by a giant dome, form the beginnings of what has been nicknamed the Biopolis, a research campus dedicated to biotechnology...

At a recent global biotech convention in Atlanta, 27 states, including Hawaii and Oklahoma, paid as much as $100,000 each to entice companies on the exhibition floor. All this for a highly risky industry that has turned a profit only one year in the past four decades....

One of the questions in biotech ethics that is least talked about (outside of academic circles) is the question of what economists call "opportunity costs." Every dollar invested — wisely or foolishly — in biotech is a dollar not invested in something else. Now, public investment in business ventures is not exactly unique to biotech. Even prior to the obvious recent example of General Motors, governments at all levels have for many years — centuries, in fact — invested in business ventures they've seen as contributing to the public good. Sometimes that's a good idea, and sometimes it's not. Even a fan of biotech has to wonder whether the governments mentioned in the NY Times article are really doing the calculations carefully.


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