Monday, November 3, 1997
The products of biotechnology have saved or prolonged thousands of lives and made thousands of lives better. In the future, it's a safe bet that biotech will save and improve thousands, or even millions, more. It's not clear, however, who will receive the credit for the good biotechnology has done and will do.
At the same time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the media and entertainment industries find "genetic manipulation" a ripe source of sensational material to attract the attention of their audiences. On balance, it is in the interests of these media to create a nagging worry among the public that "biotechnology" is a technology out of control, whose scientists create the potential to fray the moral fabric of society through the manipulation of the very essence of life.
The overall public mind about biotech so far probably is neutral or - more likely - unknowing. But the continuing portrayal of biotechnology in breathless or hysterical tones should lead anyone with an interest in the technology, from basic researchers to corporate management, to think about the kind of public environment that will prevail.
Regardless of one's politics, the comments of Vice President Al Gore to CEOs at last month's Biotech Meeting at Laguna Niguel connected squarely on this issue. Gore told the chief executives that the long term success of biotech requires "a high level of public confidence in the research you do and the products you produce."
The vice president added, "The public's always had doubts about new science and technology, and that's especially true today when the changes are so rapid and sometimes so monumental that they just stagger the imagination."
Media eat up headless frogs
The most recent example of how the public is exposed to biotech came two weeks ago with the coverage of headless frogs, emanating from a cover story in London and ricocheting through newswires and broadcast outlets to network news in New York and prominent newspaper coverage in Washington.