The beginning of social drama is breach—when a person or subgroup breaks a rule, norm, law, or custom either deliberately or by inward compulsion (as, for example, in pursuing scientific research). While many people stumbled into biotechnology, there was a core in the middle 1970s that deliberately, and with determination, went about turning the intellectual property of Nobel Prize research into marketable commodities. Between 1960 and 1972, 14 of 31 Nobel awards in physiology or medicine were awarded to classical genetics and molecular biology.
Intellectual investment in molecular medicine led to the disruptive recombinant DNA technology and, for some, a crisis of technological and moral risk.
Recombinant DNA technology, developed in 1973, gave molecular scientists the ability to join together pieces of genetic material from different species creating chimera and fashioning the conditions for sequencing the human genome. That this breach was consequential became public when molecular scientists in a fit of self-reflection placed a voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA research in 1974.
On the economic front, declining public funding support for universities and demands from the public for payback from earlier investments in scientific research led to schemes to strategically ally industries with universities to make money for both. In 1980, 80% of the $1 billion spent on biotechnology research (worldwide) came from academic sources. By 1986, industry accounted for 67% of the $6 billion spent on biotechnology research.
According to one industry analyst, this was the moment when “disease became a market opportunity,” a metaphor not infrequently repeated at biofinance conferences. Individuals trained in public labs, with thoughts of university positions to follow, found themselves thinking about how their experiments would look in the next quarterly business report.