The San Francisco Chronicle ran a story in its Sunday, June 13 edition on the BIO 2004 conference that moved through town earlier that week. The story was cleverly written, describing the world of biotech as a kind of Wonderland, full of promises that, like the Cheshire Cat, evaporate into thin air. The writer compared the angry protesters that besieged the Moscone Convention Center on the previous Tuesday to the Queen of Hearts screaming, "Off with their heads!"
For the most part, the Chronicle leveled familiar criticism at the industry, focusing on the fact that the decoding of the human genome has not yet led to a cure for cancer and that the aisles of BIO's exhibit halls are still lined with booths of high-tech companies that have yet to deliver a product or make a profit.
While acknowledging that some industry leaders, such as Amgen and Genentech, have succeeded in becoming serious drug companies, the article had nothing to say about what biotechnology's lesser known practitioners have achieved outside of developing pharmaceuticals.
This is partly because the writer looked to commercialized drugs and breakthrough cures as the exclusive standards of success in biotechnology. It is also because the biotech industry has not effectively communicated its real advances to the mainstream press.
Not that there wasn't a lot of information available to reporters at BIO. In fact, there was too much. The shear volume of high-tech minutia at this meeting is guaranteed to send any writer with a deadline and a nonscientist readership down the path of the quick-hit, industry-critical news feature.
Indeed, some reporters went down the street to the headquarters of Reclaim the Commons, the activist group that organized the Tuesday protests. At a press conference on Monday, the group distilled scads of facts and figures into a cohesive, four-point message proclaiming that the big corporations at BIO 2004 are taking over our bodies by patenting human genes, commandeering our food supply by forcing genetically modified seeds into fields the world over, squashing our right-to-know in the U.S. by keeping "genetically modified" off of food labels, and riding roughshod over indigenous cultures by patenting traditional seeds and crop plants.
This message may seem filtered through Alice's looking glass, but it is very easy to sell. The demonstrators outside the Moscone Center were thoroughly indoctrinated and ready to argue the talking points with attendees.
Some, however, were actually willing to discuss the issues. I spoke with a demonstrator named Perrie, a premed student living in California who knows a lot more about the terminator soybean than anyone else I've heard discuss the topic. Her point about the dangers of developing crop plants that don't reproduce was compelling--if somewhat stridently argued. The wonderful thing about talking to Perrie, however, was her inquisitiveness and interest in discussing rather than shouting down. In fact, she interviewed me.
She also admitted to being somewhat conflicted, given her interest in medicine. "I'm against stem cell research, but I know some people who could probably benefit from it," she said.
This kind of conflict is healthy in any intellectual battle of absolutes. It suggests a middle ground where people are truly hungry for information. Perrie is ready for dialogue. The question is whether the biotech industry will step into the middle ground.
One executive I spoke with later dismissed activists' concerns about stem cell research as sheer hooey. As for family farmers losing their livelihoods because of competition from industrial growers of genetically modified crops--those farmers will just have to be retrained, he said.
Meanwhile, outside, the protesters were chanting that it is never too late to quit jobs in biotech and get retrained. So much for dialogue. One wondered in San Francisco whether the barricades and a police showing big enough to secure a World Trade Organization meeting were meant to keep the protesters out or to help science and industry lock itself in.
Hopeless? Never. In fact, this year's conference featured what may be a reclaiming of the common ground for dialogue. BIO's industrial biotech section issued a report entitled "New Biotech Tools for a Cleaner Environment." By extolling the green angle to industrial biotechnology, the group hopes to get the attention of industry critics who are, at heart, environmentalists. National Public Radio ran with the story like the White Rabbit on a tight deadline.
The green angle on biotech plastics won't necessarily change entrenched opinions about agricultural and health care biotechnology in our world of rigidly polarized ideas. But optimism can be found where common ground emerges.
When I compared the likelihood of convincing a demonstrator that genetically modified vegetables are safe to the likelihood of convincing a Reagan Republican to vote for John Kerry, Perrie laughed and said her mother was convinced to cross exactly that chasm this year. They probably talked it over.
PHOTO BY RICK MULLIN