Europe, the UK and Changing Institutions for Research: Molecular Genetics in Biotechnology
(Theme 3: The Evaluation of Collaboration and Networking in European S&T;)

Dr Sandra M Thomas

  • to undertake a systematic description of the changing institutional basis for public sector molecular genetics research in the UK and Europe

  • to develop an analytical framework to identify the costs and benefits which may occur as a result of international collaboration

  • to explore existing evaluation procedures for selected programmes and projects in both the EU and UK

  • to propose a larger-scale study for Stage 2 funding under the European Context of Science Policy Programme

Main Results

The systematic description of the changing institutional basis for public sector molecular genetics research was compiled through the research literature and twenty-five interviews with research administrators and scientists. It clearly demonstrates the increasing dominance of molecular genetics in a wide range of subject areas including biomedical research, developmental genetics and agriculture.

The importance of European collaboration is especially evident in the achievement of the networks established to map and sequence genomes of man and other organisms. The research focused on four genome mapping and sequencing programmes:

  • the international human genome programme
  • the yeast programme
  • Arabisposis and
  • the nematode worm C.elegans

The findings suggest that the genome research network may differ profoundly from more conventional institutional structures. Within overall bioscience budgets, the importance of funding from EU programmes is apparent in some genome programmes (yeast and Arabidopsis) and not other (C.elegans and Drosophila). In terms of institutional change, two important new research modes have emerged. The dedicated genome analysis institute (eg. the new Sanger Centre at Cambridge, employing 300 people) and the collaborative networks involving between two and forty laboratories. The small research group in the "single-gene" laboratory remains however the main mode of undertaking research in molecular genetics.

The commercial potential of genomes has been accelerated by the US National Institute of Health's (NIH) attempt to patent cloned human genome fragments in 1992. Several US companies have already been set up specifically to exploit human genome data. It is far from clear how these data will reach the public domain. Uncertainty over intellectual property rights in genome research has been identified as a major concern.

An analytical framework has been developed to identify the costs and benefits which may occur as a results of international collaboration. This involves the use of novel indicators based on the exchange and utilisation of genetic materials1, the number of genes mapped and sequenced2 and conventional indicators such as the number and quality of publications produced. These can also be used to evaluate the performance of research groups.

Existing evaluation procedures for selected programmes and projects have been explored in both EU and UK.

A larger-scale study focusing on genome analysis has been proposed for Stage 2 of the Programme.

A network of leading research scientists has been established. These include Dr D Cohen of CEPH, Paris, the leading human genome institute in the world, Prof S Oliver, Programme Coordinator of the EU Yeast Genome Programme, Dr W Ansorge of EMBL, Heidelberg and Dr D Bentley of the Sanger Centre, Cambridge. Meetings involving these researchers were organised at two major international conferences on genome analysis in July 1993 and March 1994. Preliminary contacts have also been made with three policy-related researchers with a view to establishing a social science network in this subject area for Stage 2.

Implications for policy and practice

The results demonstrate that a strong research base in this crucially important area in the UK and Europe is essential if UK (and European) industry is to meet the competitive challenges from the US, Japan and the newly-industrialised countries. Although genome analysis lies firmly within the basic research category, it is closely linked to technology development. Indeed, as with conventional "big" science, gains in technology drive the research forward, enabling new scientific questions to be answered. Although the industrial strategies towards the commercial development of human genome data are unclear, there is no doubt that they are actively being pursued by small and large companies in Europe, the US and Japan.

UK science policy and management will therefore have to take account of these changing institutional structures. Without systematic understanding of both the costs and benefits of different organisational bases for genome, research, this institutional dimension of decision- making may either (i) fail to develop or improve new and existing structures required for continuing success in UK participation in European collaborative research or (ii) remain vulnerable to vagaries of ill-founded "hunches" of fashions about patterns of institutional development. UK decision-makers must be able to evaluate whether the organisational forms of EU and other international collaborative initiatives, whatever their other merits, are likely to add scientific and technological value beyond that achievable at the national level. Decisions about the relative role of the small traditional research group as well as assessment of the large programme outputs on the nature and direction of their work will also have to be made. The analytical approach proposed under this study has the potential to contribute significantly to these decision-making processes.

  1. For example, the number of YACS screened (yeast artificial chromosome containing the DNA of interest)
  2. The analysis of gene sequences deposited in the international GENBANK database has led to the development of a new scientific indicator based on "sequenceometrics".

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