Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - The U.S. government is attempting to get a clearer picture of how the biotechnology industry works and whether it is being helped or hampered by current laws.

In the last month, some 3,000 U.S. biotechnology companies received a package from the government containing a 25-page survey that asks respondents everything from what type of research they conduct to how their companies are funded.

But the government doesn't feel its questions are particularly invasive. Instead, Karen Laney-Cummings, acting director of the Office of Technology Competitiveness of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said the questions were carefully crafted with the assistance of leaders within the industry, including the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

"We want to assess the health of the industry and we want to get a better understanding of how biotechnology is used," Laney-Cummings told BioWorld Today. "Are companies receiving the money they need in terms of capital investment? We want to see if there are barriers to their competitiveness in terms of manpower shortages or trade barriers, or whether they are engaging in collaborations. We want to know if there are problems getting technology out of the federal labs or maybe there are problems trying to partner with federal agencies."

Brent Erickson, BIO's vice president for industrial and environmental biotechnology, told BioWorld Today that the government survey is a welcome source of news. "BIO has been lobbying the Department of Commerce for some time to survey the industry and there are some good questions - beyond the bioterrorism questions - that are going to yield a good database from a credible government source."

He went on to say that the industry will be able to use data generated by the questions to help its advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

The survey starts out by asking respondents to categorize their company's work as: human health, animal health, agriculture and aquacultural/marine, marine and terrestrial microbial, industrial and agricultural-derived processing, environmental remediation, natural resource recovery or "other."

Laney-Cummings said if a company does not fit into any of the categories, or does not consider itself a biotechnology firm, the survey can be returned. Companies receiving the surveys were identified through a number of sources, including individual state databases and BIO's member list. It is possible that a few firms slipped in that could not appropriately complete the survey, she said.

Unlike a BIO survey conducted post-Sept. 11 aimed at compiling a list of products and materials companies possessed that could be used by terrorists, this government survey isn't specific to one area.

However, as pointed out by Laney-Cummings, "if we find out you are working with certain pathogens that the Department of Defense is interested in, that would be helpful."

One section of the survey seeks financial details such as annual net sales, costs of good sold and operating income. And, the government wants companies to describe their sources of income. That is, whether funding comes from in-house revenue, venture capital, conventional loans, U.S. or foreign loans, or private loans.

If a company exports products, the survey asks what percent of revenue is derived from exports and, geographically, where the products are going.

On the last page, companies get the opportunity to rate barriers. Some choices listed are "unfair foreign laws," "unfair U.S. laws," "access to international market," or "export control regulations."

Complete surveys are due back in Washington 45 days after receipt and anyone failing to comply could be penalized with a $10,000 fine.

All information submitted is considered confidential and will not be released to the public in any way other than in an aggregate form, Laney-Cummings said. A summary report on the information should be published early next year.

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