Biotechnology is also likely to produce winners and losers as a result of social and economic impacts, says George Norton. The professor of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech says sorting out these social and economic effects may be critical to public acceptance of biotechnology. Without that acceptance, he fears, many potential benefits may be lost.
Norton is heading an effort centered at Virginia Tech and including scientists worldwide that will investigate the social and economic effects of biotechnologies. The project is funded by a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The scientific achievements of biotechnology have been occurring at such an astounding pace that social and economic assessments have lagged behind, Norton says.
"There are major benefits that can be expected from agricultural biotechnology, but we expect to see distributional effects as well," Norton says. "For example, early adopters of the technology may be in a stronger position than those who adopt it later."
The four-year project will investigate the impacts of biotechnology from a social science perspective. The faculty members involved will be able to draw on the expertise of Virginia Tech researchers who have pioneered key biotechnology procedures, especially in the area of generating human pharmaceuticals from plants and animals.
"We cant look into economics or social issues in a vacuum," Norton says. "Well have to inform ourselves [about the scientific aspects of biotechnology] as we go ahead, but we also want to keep our perspective. We dont want to be an advocate for any side of this."