While Protesters Rage Against Tech Giants, Biotech Drives Quietly By

8/12/14Follow @alexlash

Not long ago, biotech made a lot of people angry. Up until 2005 or so, the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference attracted large street protests, which in turn attracted cops in riot gear in some cases (see San Francisco, 2004) as well as the attention of the industry’s top brass. Here’s then-BIO president Carl Feldbaum during his keynote speech at the 2000 convention in Boston:

“Because of our accelerating progress and prominence and the bioethical issues raised by our technology, protests likely have become a fact of life, not just for BIO 2000, but for years to come… The protests we face now and in years ahead represent the growing challenge of maintaining public acceptance for biotechnology. In the long run, public acceptance will determine the pace of our progress in all applications of biotechnology. We cannot risk slowing down our efforts to find new therapies and cures; to help developing nations feed their people; to conserve limited natural resources; and to keep cleaning up our environment.”

I wasn’t there in 2000, but Tom Ranken was, and remembered being “accosted” outside Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. He was head of public affairs at Immunex, Seattle’s biggest biotech, at the time. He went on to run Washington state’s biotech trade group, and is now head of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance. “There were concrete barricades everywhere,” Ranken told me recently. “The police chief said, ‘We won’t have Seattle here,’” a reference to protesters turning the World Trade Organization’s 1999 Seattle gathering into a state of emergency.

Fast forward to June 2014 in San Diego. The biggest fuss outside this year’s BIO show came from a dozen or so red-white-and-blue–clad seniors protesting the keynote speech of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They were upset about Benghazi, not biotech, and instead of a street riot, passers-by worried a bingo game might break out.

Unlike the employee shuttles of Google and other tech companies, Genentech's busses have never been targets of protest in San Francisco.

Unlike the employee shuttles of Google and other tech companies, Genentech’s busses have never been targets of protest in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., politicians continue to lambaste drug companies for high prices, but not for scientific overreach. In San Francisco, angry protesters have targeted Google employee shuttles and products, but no one is blocking and attacking Genentech’s busses.

What gives? Americans are skeptical of various areas of science, such as climate change, but for many reasons, both on the left and the right, biomedical technology doesn’t raise the same hackles anymore. (The same cannot be said for biotech in agriculture and food—witness the backlash on crowdfunding site Kickstarter against bioengineered houseplants—but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m sticking to biomedicine.)

“If you had called me in 2007 and said the energy would be going out of the debate about biotechnology, I’d have said no,” says Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the 2011 book The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America. Moreno reminds me that the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case … Next Page »

Alex Lash is Xconomy's National Biotech Editor. He is based in San Francisco. Follow @alexlash

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  • JSchaible

    Anti-bio might be at a swing low, but we should not rest on the laurels believing it gone. For in several areas, new attack plans are even now being unleashed. Perhaps the most disturbing is this marketing driven anti-GMO & “white wave” trend, being promoted by the likes of Chipolte (who has declared they will soon be able to announce no GMO in their food…but not drinks). Yes, they might not be the first. Companies like General Mills declared Cheerios GMO free (but not the more popular Honey Nut Cheerios) which was easy given there isn’t a GMO oat in general use. But I expect anti-GMO to be core to Chipolte’s rapidly growing “food with integrity” ad campaign, and for others to jump on that bandwagon. What is zany is such then favors not only incremental deforestation given lower yeilds, but also as neither old school plant species alteration methods (eg, seeds placed in the core on nuclear reactor, etc) nor new gene editing technology like ZFN, TALENs, CRISPRS & GRONs necessarily produce GMOs. But facts have never gotten in the way of the Frankenfood crowd before….