While Protesters Rage Against Tech Giants, Biotech Drives Quietly By

8/12/14Follow @alexlash

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of cars from local highways, they are the bane of many on the left—the epitome of high-tech privilege—and have been blockaded, even attacked.

But coincidence or not, Genentech’s shuttles, which have 16 routes in the Bay Area and have been running in San Francisco since 2006, have never been targeted, according to spokeswoman Lisa Slater. (“We have not altered our routes or made any changes as a results of the protests,” she says.) And unlike the tech busses, Genentech has kept its company name on the sides of its shuttles.

(The city of San Francisco and the shuttle bus companies negotiated a compromise to charge the busses, including Genentech’s, $3.55 each time they pick up riders in a bus stop dedicated to Muni, S.F.’s public transport system. The 18-month pilot project started August 1 and attracted more protests.)

It’s not just busses. At least a couple times, people wearing Google Glass have been cuffed around on the street.

Meanwhile, on the political right, general trust in science has significantly eroded across the past three decades; in the 1970s conservatives had the highest trust ratings relative to moderates and liberals, but by 2010, they had the lowest ratings.

Nonetheless, President Obama’s election and his abolishment of the Bush-era limitations on embryonic stem cell research took away the bully pulpit, then the momentum, from stem-cell opponents. There’s still a core of opposition to biomedical experimentation, often (but not exclusively) grounded in the anti-abortion movement. It’s arguably less prominent a national issue now, although conservative politicians like former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, who did surprisingly well on a shoe string budget in the 2012 Republican primaries, will undoubtedly tout their opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research, evolution, climate change,and other scientific priniciples or endeavors on the campaign trail. “These sentinel issues still have potential to get the attention of 15 to 20 percent of the electorate,” says Moreno.

At least two states, meanwhile (Arizona and Louisiana), have banned human-animal hybrids, although the apparent conflation of hybrids and chimeras in Bush’s 2006 State of the Union has been avoided in those states, according to Slate’s Daniel Engber, writing in 2013.

One area of bioskepticism that spans the political spectrum, and has in fact gotten worse with regrettable consequences is the anti-vaccine movement. Rates of pertussis—whooping cough—have trended upward since 1990 according to the Centers for Disease Control, with an association between higher rates and states that more easily grant parents vaccination exemptions for their kids.

Lest you think it’s a red state/blue state issue, the state of California recently said whooping cough has reached epidemic levels this year, with some of the highest personal-belief exemptions in very “blue” cities and counties. Vaccine fears are driven mainly by bad information—for example, a now-debunked fraudulent British study—that persists on the Internet. “That kind of skepticism around medical technology is misplaced, but other skepticism is warranted,” says Marcy Darnovsky, who tracks biotech innovation as executive director of the watchdog Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.

Overblown promises of cures from previous decades around gene therapy and regenerative medicine fueled public skepticism, says Darnovsky, but she gives credit to “some researchers and scientists who are stepping up” these days with more measured attitudes around regenerative medicine, in particular, to explain how “the treatments are not quite here.”

Careful communication—and a good dose of luck—will be critical if biomedicine is to remain in the public’s relative good graces in coming years. Synthetic biology, genetic privacy, a new form of in-vitro fertilization popularly known as “three-parent babies,” memory manipulation, and other frontiers will inevitably be approached, if not broached. It only takes one incident—another Terri Schiavo-like case, a rogue scientist, a wacky experiment—to bring back grassroots anxiety and turn people back out, rightly or wrongly, into the streets like we saw fifteen years ago.

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Paul Howard pointed to genetic privacy as an issue of concern that will cut across party lines and potentially inform the way Americans make all kinds of personal choices, such as parental screening and even dating decisions, similar to the way some people ask each other now about their alma maters.

Meanwhile, federal funding for basic research—the lifeblood of the biomedical industry—has declined in real dollars since the Bush years. With few moderate Republicans remaining in the mold of Arlen Specter, who once maneuvered to prop up the National of Institutes of Health budget, GOP control of federal purse strings in future years could bring deeper cuts.

Public hostility would only exacerbate that possibility. But for now, we seem to be in a period of detente, if not the outright “public acceptance” that BIO president Feldbaum dreamed of fourteen years ago. Industry and academic researchers would do well to keep it that way.

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….