Why Should the Public Care About Biotech? Why is the Answer Always Jobs?

4/24/09Follow @xconomy

Why isn’t public health important enough? This is what I wondered, sitting in a press conference yesterday at Seattle Children’s Hospital Research Institute, listening to high government and business officials talk about the urgent need to foster greater public understanding of biotechnology and why it matters to the future of Washington state and our country. They want the public to better appreciate biotech, and create a message that will resonate. So they talked mostly about jobs.

Biotech finds itself in this vulnerable position, trying to turn a weakness into a strength, because it suffers from a very murky public identity. The industry can create remarkable new medicines to treat the previously untreatable, but even when scientists create the next penicillin, that will never captivate the public imagination in the way that an iPhone, a Kindle, or a 787 Dreamliner can. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have universal name recognition because they sell products that hundreds of millions of people use every day, love them or hate them.

Life sciences companies like Amgen, Genentech, Genzyme, Gilead Sciences, and Biogen Idec are success stories that have pioneered treatments for cancer, HIV, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and rare genetic diseases. Millions of patients and physicians know about the valuable products these companies have created, and every money manager in America knows their names too. Yet if you took a Gallup poll on name recognition, or did any exit polling, I’d wager that fewer than 1 percent of American citizens could name a single biotech company or product.

If you’re a biotech industry leader, you know this. Yet you need taxpayer support to keep the U.S. as the world’s leader in basic research that is the bedrock of your industry. So what do you do? How do you appeal to people who hope they never get the disease that your industry is trying to treat, and will never get a doctorate in molecular biology needed to really appreciate what’s happening in the lab? You appeal to base economics that everybody understands. Those people in the lab may do secretive, technical things, but they have potential to create lots of new jobs, and the kind of jobs that can really pay a decent mortgage—or so the talking points go.

The latest effort to convince the public that biotech matters, and that it should be supported, is going by the name of We Work for Health, with a Madison Avenue tagline of “Saving Lives is Our Job.” This coalition involves five regional leaders as co-chairs: Bob Drewel, executive director of the Puget Sound Regional Council; Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University; Rogers Weed, the director of the Washington Community, Trade, and Economic Development Department; Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association; and Lee Huntsman, the executive director of the state Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

The group’s objective was laid out succinctly in its handout. “We Work for Health is an effort to unite business, academic, and community partners with company employees, vendors, suppliers, and the public around a common goal: To communicate to policymakers and key opinion leaders the important role the life sciences sector plays in Washington’s economy, and the contribution that biopharmaceutical and biotechnology companies make to the innovation pipeline.”

To get people to support this, the first step was to hire a consulting firm, Archstone Consulting, to analyze the economic impact, with financial support from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. This study revealed nothing surprising or groundbreaking. But here are a few bullet points.

—There were 19,291 people directly employed in biopharmaceuticals in Washington state in 2006, the year the most recent data was available. Those jobs created a ripple effect by supporting 20,923 other jobs in Washington state, and another 27,392 in other states, for a grand total of 67,606, according to the report. This rippling effect across the country means that the biotech sector supports about 3.2 million jobs across the U.S. economy, or a little more than one job for every 100 citizens.

—The average annual salary in 2006 for biotech industry workers in Washington state was $81,499, about double the average wage for all other sectors, $42,178.

—Washington state ranks No. 8 … Next Page »

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