DUBLIN, Ireland ¿ The Irish BioIndustry Association (IBIA) has called on the government to make ¿a categoric policy statement of support¿ for the development of biotechnology in the pharmaceutical, health care, agriculture and food production sectors.

¿We¿re looking for some kind of state-of-the-nation¿-type comment from the [prime minister],¿ said IBIA director Matt Moran, to position Ireland as a leading biotechnology location in the next century.

IBIA published a position paper last week which sets out eight recommendations to government, covering issues such as investment, research funding, research commercialization, regulation and public communication. The level of research funding is currently ¿pretty low,¿ Moran said. ¿If that¿s not primed, it¿s hard to see a substantial biotechnology industry growing.¿

The Irish biotechnology sector contains 22 indigenous companies that can be regarded as ¿pure biotechnology¿ firms, according to the IBIA document. Twenty-four others make significant use of biotechnology as part of their overall activities. The vast majority of these companies are very small, however. Half of the 22 biotech firms employ fewer than five people, and just two, Trinity Biotech and Biotrin, both of Dublin, employ more than 50 people.

The university system produces a relatively large number of graduates in biotechnology and related disciplines. According to the IBIA, 1,948 graduates came into the work force in 1996. But a substantial proportion of these move overseas, particularly to the U.S., to find jobs. The IBIA has called on the Irish government to promote programs to tempt them to return.

The IBIA has looked to the Irish software industry as something of a model. The country has developed a successful indigenous sector, alongside a raft of foreign-owned companies with facilities in Ireland. The essential elements, such as access to capital and availability of experienced personnel, are now in place. According to the IBIA, Ireland must now declare its intention to be a player in biotechnology as well.