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Biotech congress looks to the future

The biotech industry needs more students to sustain its momentum Keystone

Future advances in the European biotechnology sector are being threatened by poor coordination and a shortage of students.

This content was published on August 27, 2003 - 12:22

The warning came as 1,500 researchers gathered in Basel to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the European Federation of Biotechnology in Interlaken.

Scientists are generally agreed that European biotech has huge prospects, but a number of prerequisites must be met if that potential is to be realised.

“It is vitally important that in certain areas the European Union introduces common standards and common legislation so that there is not a huge bureaucratic problem of dealing with each country separately,” said Urs von Stockar from the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

The education system also faces the challenge of supplying the highly skilled workforce needed for the future.

“If the forecasts come true, it has been calculated that we would need 25,000 extra PhD students just to cover the needs of biotechnology,” said von Stockar.

“It is a huge number since the yearly output of PhDs is counted perhaps in a few thousand for a lot of countries.”

Progress

Participants at the 11th European Congress on Biotechnology are also discussing their latest discoveries.

The hope is to bridge gaps between scientific disciplines, and between science and society.

“Twenty-five years ago the term biotechnology just meant the integrated use of biosciences with engineering, and that was pretty new,” said von Stockar, who is chairman of the organising committee.

“Since then, biotechnology has developed enormously and there are a lot of sub-disciplines that are highly scientific and also highly exciting.”

These include genomics, computational biotechnology, nanoscale bioscience and protein engineering - to name just a few.

“The really novel stuff often comes when two different types of scientific disciplines meet and there is suddenly a diffusion of ideas between the two,” von Stockar told swissinfo.

“But it is often quite difficult for individual scientists to see across all these borders, and sometimes there are difficulties in language between what is used in one subfield and another.”

Dialogue

Through workshops and symposia, the Congress is hoping to open communication between biotechnologists of different fields.

“It is very important that individual scientists have contact with things they don’t normally work with,” said von Stockar.

In his opening address to the conference on Sunday, the Swiss president Pascal Couchepin, said biotechnology ranked with information technology and globalisation as one of the key forces of the 21st century.

He warned against too much regulation in the field of gene technology, saying the state’s role was to guarantee and promote fundamental research.

Couchepin also called on scientists to discuss their work with a wider public.

Building bridges with developing countries and the question of technology transfer are also being debated at the meeting.

By organising the Congress in Basel – home of many chemical, pharmaceutical and biotech companies – the European Federation of Biotechnology is paying recognition to Switzerland’s achievements in the field.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

Biotechnology is the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes.
Switzerland boasts about 220 biotech start-ups.
The biotech scene is concentrated around Basel, Zurich and the Lake Geneva area.
Switzerland ranks number six in Europe in terms of the number of companies active in the industry.
For market capitalisation and turnover generated in biotech, Switzerland is in the number two spot.

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