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 among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and No. 8 in venture capital dollars invested in biotechnology, according to the study.

As Rivera correctly pointed out, if this study had been done 10 years ago, Washington probably would have ranked higher as a biotech center than it does now. In fact, when I examined biotech job growth for The Seattle Times in 2004, I found there were 19,300 people employed in the sector in the state the previous year, citing data from the WBBA. That suggests there was zero job growth in Washington biotech from 2003 to 2006—years during which the rest of the economy grew.

Many positive things have happened in the life sciences community in recent years, namely the growth of the global health sector through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington, Washington State University, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Seattle Children’s. All of those institutions were cited as bright spots by Weed, the state’s new commerce director.

But he didn’t name a single for-profit biotech company that’s creating lots of jobs in Washington, because the state doesn’t have any. The region has some promising companies—Dendreon, Seattle Genetics, and ZymoGenetics—which are developing potential breakthrough therapies for prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and hepatitis C. Yet none of them is a major driver of job growth. If they play their business cards right, they might bring those treatments to the marketplace.  It will be years before that happens, if ever. Those companies might never become profitable.

I understand the desire to hold a press conference to reach out for public support. This is clearly a delicate time for biotech in Washington, as the 10-year, $350 million Life Sciences Discovery Fund is threatened by the state’s budget woes, and a few other states, namely Texas and Florida, are aggressively recruiting entrepreneurs and researchers to set up shop in their states, Rivera said. Huntsman pointed out that his experience during a couple of years on the Discovery Fund shows the state is still “teeming” with bright ideas. He noted that his agency has gotten 264 proposals from 38 organizations, and awarded just 21 competitive grants.

Maybe organizations like We Work For Health should pour more of their energy into explaining why  improvements to human health make a difference for society over a period of decades. I don’t really understand why that potential payoff is not enough, and why citizens can only be spoken to through a bullhorn about job security.

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.