Monoclonal antibodies played a key role in the development of the biotechnology industry of the 1980s and 1990s. Investments in the sector and commercial returns have rivaled those of recombinant DNA technologies. Although the monoclonal antibody technology was first developed in Britain, the first patents were taken out by American scientists.
During the first Thatcher government in Britain, blame for the missed opportunity fell on the scientists involved as well as on the National Research and Development Corporation, which had been put in place after World War II to avoid a repeat of the penicillin story, when patent rights were not sought. Instead of apportioning the blame, this essay suggests that despite past experiences and despite the new channels that were in place, Britain was not in a “patent culture” in the 1970s. It traces the long and painful process that made a commercial attitude among publicly funded British research scientists and in a civil service institution like the Medical Research Council both possible and desirable. In this process the meaning of the term “public science” also changed dramatically.