While Protesters Rage Against Tech Giants, Biotech Drives Quietly By

8/12/14Follow @alexlash

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captured national attention in 2005, fueling contentious attitudes about medical technology. In the 2006 State of the Union speech,

President Bush included “human-animal hybrids” among the biomedical “abuses” he wanted to see banned. And in 2004 and 2008, embryonic stem cell research was a litmus test for presidential candidates.

Biomedical overreach and ethical breach are always legitimate concerns, but the public conversation seems to have shifted for now. A couple things are worth noting from recent polls of Americans and scientific attitudes. An Associated Press-GfK survey in March asked people how confident they were of various science-related statements. Note how biomedical concepts, except for the safety of childhood vaccines, inspire the most confidence. (Unfortunately this was the first AP/GfK poll to address these questions, so there are no previous comparators.)

AP-GfK MArch 2014 poll about American attitudes toward science

And here’s a statement that surprised me, from the National Science Foundation’s most recent annual survey of American attitudes toward science: “In 2013, 6 in 10 of Americans saw using stem cells from human embryos as acceptable. This percentage has stayed relatively stable since 2005.”

On the left, I suspect drones, spying, and consumer-information databases have to some extent replaced biotechnology among fears of corporate-government overreach.

Ryan Bethencourt, who worked in the life sciences industry before opening a biohacker lab in Berkeley, CA, gives frequent public talks about giving citizens tools for genetic engineering, a topic rife with ethical questions. I asked him what kind of resistance he’s encountered. Only once, he says, has someone stood up to object. “A protester said, ‘You guys should be banned, it’s unnatural,’” says Bethencourt. “He looked like a hippie who used to protest nuclear energy.”

Bethencourt is a self-proclaimed pro-GMO vegan and gets “blasted by fellow vegans” on social media for those views. But when he tells people that their toothpaste and shampoo contain genetically engineered elements, people are “shocked” but not freaked out.

In the Bay Area, high tech is a bogeyman because of its association with gentrification and urban displacement. In San Francisco, the phrase “Google bus” alone elicits a Pavlovian response. Even though the busses that shuttle Google, Apple, and other employees from the city down to Silicon Valley remove hundreds … 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….