Defining Biotechnology

Biotechnology is all around us. If you're not convinced, just open your fridge or visit your pharmacist. Yogurts and beer, vaccines and antibiotics . . . They're all fine examples of what biotechnology is helping us produce.

So what exactly is biotechnology?

Biotechnology was defined in the international Convention on Biological Diversity as "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use."

The definition is broad, and the applications of biotechnology are potentially unlimited. Today biotechnology plays an important role in human health care (sometimes referred to as "red biotechnology"), and has already helped design many new medicines and diagnostic tools. Biotechnology is also used in agriculture ("green biotech") in plant-tissue culture and assisted breeding, and of course in the more controversial genetically modified crops. Industries may also use biotech as a tool for the mass production of goods like chemicals, drugs, and food products, or to carry out valuable processes such as degrading waste. These uses, collectively, are often called "white biotech."

Given how much money there is in the industry, it is not surprising that biotech is most prominent in drug discovery and pharmaceuticals. According to Biotechnology in Europe: 2005 Comparative Studies , a report written by Critical I Limited for EuropaBio, 60% of the biotech companies in the United States were in the human health care sector in 2003, and 51% in Europe. Today, the vast majority of new venture-capital investment in biotech goes to companies working in the "red" part of the industry. So when it comes to careers in biotech, health care is dominant.

But red biotech is not the only player. As many as 33% of U.S. biotech companies, and 35% of their European counterparts, are dedicated to providing services. Five percent of the biotech companies in the United States, and 7% of the European ones, worked in the food and agricultural sectors. In the United States, only 2% of the biotech companies worked in the environmental sector, compared to 7% in Europe.

What's the Job Market Like?

According to the EuropaBio report, the United States counted 1830 biotech companies in 2003, employing some 172,400 people and investing the equivalent of € 16,4 billion in R&D. Europe sported 1976 biotech companies, but, although they were equivalent in number, they employed only about 94,000--half of the U.S. biotech workforce--and invested less than a third as much in R&D (€ 6 billion). By and large, European biotech companies are smaller and younger than their U.S. counterparts.

Indeed, for those making career decisions, it is good to be aware of the fact that biotechnology is a young job market everywhere. After all, Genentech, the first biotech company in the world, opened its doors in the United States only 30 years ago. While Genentech has done well, the biotech sector as a whole has known many ups and downs as it has endeavoured to establish itself.

A notably low time was 2001 to 2002, when companies went through extensive restructuring, R&D investment was reduced, and many employees were laid off in both the United States and Europe. But a recovery commenced in the United States as early as 2003.

In Europe, the recovery was slower. According to the EuropaBio report, there was a 4% decline in all biotech jobs around Europe between 2001 and 2004. When considering only R&D jobs and the shorter time span of 2002 to 2003, the statistics looked a little worse. There was a 5% decline in the number of R&D employees, which confounded all biotech sectors.. Health care biotech companies were especially badly hit, with an 8% decline in R&D workforce.

But now, even Europe seems on its way to recovery, according to Ernst & Young's latest report, Beyond Borders: Global Biotechnology Report 2005 . Ernst & Young concludes that "the [biotech] sector is rapidly becoming more mature and truly global." The United States, which has the major share of the global biotech market, is faring very well, and Europe has shown strong signs of recovery in 2004. It still has many challenges to face--despite the apparent recovery, employment numbers were still down in 2004--but Ernst & Young believe that European biotech is "back on track."

So what does this mean on the ground? What are the job prospects in the biotech industry for scientists in the U.S. and in Europe? What are employers looking for?

In this new feature, "Research Careers in the Biotech Industry," Science's Next Wave talks to experts and provides answers to help you prepare to enter an always evolving job market.

Commercial Awareness for the European Biotech Industry. According to Ernst & Young's latest report, the European Biotech industry is now ready to move forward, but it still lacks in maturity compared to its American counterpart. This means new requirements for scientists wanting to break in to the European biotech industry. Our freelancer Albert Michels talks to stakeholders in the European biotech industry to get insight into R&D jobs and the nature of industrial research.

The University in Corporate Clothing. Genentech is the oldest biotechnology company, and it is one of the largest and most successful. It's also one of the best corporations to work for in the U.S., according to Fortune, Essence, Working Mother, and other sources. So what is it like to work there, and what do hiring managers look for in a candidate? Jim Kling finds out.

Careers in Biotech: A Look at Health Care. For those who make it in biotech, what is it like? Stephen James, now departmental director of the Biotech Pharmaceutical Swedish company Biovitrium, tells Anne Forde , Next Wave's Editor North & West Europe, how he left academia for the healthcare sector of biotech and highlights what he believes are the skills needed and the rewards gained.

More in Next Wave's Archives ?

The U.S. job market: Bully for Biotech

The European job market: European Biotech: Hang in There

The German job market: If you Can Stand the Heat, Stay in Biotech

The biotech landscape in the U.K.: A Question of Sustainability

Opportunities: Careers in Biotech Manufacturing

Opportunities: Personalized Drugs, Personalized Careers

What it's like: Life in Biotech

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.