In the 1960s and 1970s, German companies and laboratories churned out futuristic technologies, from novel types of nuclear reactors to the world’s first magnetic-levitation train. In the early 1980s, Germany was one of the first countries to develop a national plan for genetics research, setting up labs in Munich, Cologne, and Heidelberg. Per capita, German scientists applied for more biotech patents than Americans did.
Yet only a few years later, German pharmaceutical companies like BASF and Bayer postponed production plans and moved much of their research abroad. Germany lost its spot at the cutting edge of biotech. One reason was the pull of a powerful new startup culture that had developed around American universities in the 1980s. But there was a more sinister reason as well: a powerful coalition of environmental activists, church leaders, politicians, and journalists mobilized fears against medical biotechnology as a dangerous meddling with nature, an attack on human dignity reminiscent of Nazi eugenics. With much of the public behind them, lawmakers tightened regulations, bureaucrats refused to grant permits, and even academic research facilities became targets of righteous protest. Today, most Germans once again accept medical biotech, but most of the industry’s leading companies are found in the U.S.