Although the biotech industry reacts attentively to the financial community's changing moods, ultimately it may be Main Street, not Wall Street, that determines important aspects of the industry's future.

As biotechnology products move to the marketplace, society will be forced to make serious choices about issues related to genetic testing and privacy, as well as ethical quandaries posed by the potential to intervene in the development of genetic diseases in the fetus, and the possibility of genetic therapies that "enhance" human performance.

Biotech's future may hinge on the industry's ability to retain public confidence, while preventing expectations from spinning out of control. Attempts to regulate pharmaceutical prices during the health care reform debate, and mounting interest in Congress in bioethics issues, underscore the significant impact the public can have. For example, politicians' fears of arousing powerful religious constituents have restrained funding for reproductive research in the U.S.

A recently released National Science Foundation report, "Science & Engineering Indicators 1996", provides some benchmarks on how the industry may stand in public opinion. It shows that more than half of Americans believe that the risks of "genetic engineering" equal or exceed its benefits.

A matter of phrasing

A sizeable minority of all adults, 12 percent, believe the risks of genetic engineering strongly