While Protesters Rage Against Tech Giants, Biotech Drives Quietly By
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.
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 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.)
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 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.