Betting on Biotech: Innovation and the Limits of Asia’s Developmental State

On Friday, December 2, Joe Wong, Associate Professor of Political Sciences at the University of Toronto – where he holds a Canada Research Chair in Democratization, Health, and Development – and author of Healthy Democracies: Welfare Politics in Taiwan and South Korea, was at Boston University talking about issues animating his latest book, Betting on Biotech: Innovation Beyond the Development State. Over forty people attended the afternoon lecture, which was organized by Boston University’s Center for the Study of Asia with support from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Boston.

On one level, Wong’s new book is about the emerging biotech sector in the development states of Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore: Asian economies are betting billions of dollars on industries whose potential has been slow to realize. On another level, the book is a study of uncertainty and the logic shifts that will be required if those bets are to pay off.

Wong began his presentation – a retrospective on the Asian development state as well as a glimpse at the prospects beyond it – with a selection of vignettes encapsulating the current state of the biotech industry in Asia. As appetite for uncertainty wanes in the face of biotech’s “spectacular failure” – huge R&D investments that have yet to pay off, begging the question, “How is this good for the country and the population as a whole? – Asian governments find themselves in a quandary. The way out, according to Wong, is not to tweak the development state model, no matter how spectacularly it may have worked in the past.

There’s a difference, Wong said, between risk and uncertainty, and especially what Frank Knight calls “primary uncertainty,” where you don’t know what you don’t know. In the past, East Asian economies were good at making bets, and at mitigating risk. There was a focus on products with a short time to market, high consumer demand, in short, known quantities. Biotech is a different sort of game, raising the question: how to bet on something about which you know nothing.

Wong traced the implications of “betting blind.” Economic logic, he said, demands a “hands off” approach. Failure, from an economic perspective, is valued as a learning experience. But this is at odds with the political need for a more “hands on” approach. In order to save face, Asian governments have fallen on a number of strategies from recalibrating expectations to reframing what “biotech” even means.

[View lecture on Vimeo]