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The Biotech Future

Isaac Rabino

Modern biotechnology—specifically, recombinant DNA research—holds enormous promise. Recently the popular press has been filled with excitement, and much anxiety and confusion, about mammalian cloning. This discussion is being played out against a complex backdrop of public attitudes about biotechnology, and perceptions of those attitudes among scientists. Many applications soon may be made possible by recombinant DNA technology, popularly called genetic engineering or gene-splicing. It is no wonder, given the rapid advances in this field of research, that genetic engineering is widely seen as the science of the next century. But the risks involved in gene-splicing, let alone gene therapy or cloning, have led to controversy, activist pressures and litigation. Given the complex social climate that is developing around genetic technology, what glimpses can we get of the future of this, the most rapidly growing of the sciences?

Over the past decade I have conducted a series of surveys in the U.S. and in Europe, attempting to get a scientist's-eye view of this question and detect trends in the context in which scientists are working. I have examined my colleagues' perceptions of several questions: How do societal and political factors affect the work of recombinant DNA scientists? Are things getting better or worse? What does all the controversy mean for the future of biotechnology? And what are the main threats that must be overcome in order to realize the promise of this new field? I found a mixed picture: an assessment of public perception that differs sharply from one side of the Atlantic to the other, growing optimism about public acceptance of biotechnology in the U.S. (and support for that optimism in surveys of the public) but pessimism in Europe, and some signals that a number of challenges and dangers lie ahead for those working in this field.

Public Attention: The Bright Side

Figure 1. Surveys of genetic-engineering scientistsClick to Enlarge Image

Public attention is the ultimate driving force behind science and technology funding—but also behind regulation, political opposition and drawn-out court battles. Looked at through the eyes of genetic-engineering investigators in the U.S., the public-opinion pendulum appears to be swinging in a direction beneficial to their field.

In a 1988–89 survey of 430 U.S. scientists, almost one-quarter saw more harmful than beneficial effects from public attention. However, almost twice as many perceived public attention as more beneficial than harmful in its effects. In 1995 I surveyed 1,257 scientists and found them to be even more optimistic, with more than half viewing public attention as beneficial to their field overall, and fewer than one-fifth seeing more harmful than beneficial effects.

In Europe, however, the perception is far more negative. In my 1992 survey of European genetic-engineering scientists, one-third perceived more harm than benefit, and only one-quarter saw public attention as beneficial overall. The picture was bleakest in Germany, where almost two-thirds view public attention as harmful.

What explains the optimism in the U.S.? Clearly, investigators were not feeling more optimistic because their funding was increasing. Almost two-thirds of my 1995 survey respondents said they had personally experienced a reduction in government funding of their research. This is significant in that government was by far the largest source of funding for our survey population, accounting for 69 percent of their support; only 16 percent came from industry, 8 percent from private foundations and 3 percent from universities.

If more money was not one of the benefits of public attention, what gains did scientists perceive? One was in the area of the reasonableness of regulations and regulators. Although surely people like to complain about government agencies, roughly half of my 1995 respondents rated the performance of regulatory agencies (the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency) as excellent or good. This is not to say that they saw no problems. Many wished for greater efficiency and more relevant product or research approval criteria, for instance. However, fewer than one-fifth thought that federal regulations were endangering U.S. competitiveness in genetic engineering.

This is a far more positive picture than the one found in my 1992 European survey. Even in the United Kingdom, now Dolly's home, more than one-third of the respondents worried about the loss of their nation's competitive edge because of controversy and regulation. In Germany that figure was a staggering 92 percent.

Ominous Signs

Figure 2. The same scientistsClick to Enlarge Image

It would be easy to conclude that the future must be bright for U.S. biotechnology, if those working in the field express such optimism about public acceptance. But some survey findings indicate otherwise.

To begin with, there is the funding question. With government funds becoming more elusive, investigators must look for alternative financing. For many in academia, this means collaborating with industry. In my 1995 U.S. survey, more than one-third of academics were involved in such collaboration. Furthermore, university-industry collaboration seemed so obviously necessary that 96 percent approved of it. However, of those who approved, 65 percent did so with serious reservations about the commercialization of recombinant DNA research.

The first of the reservations had to do with the sharing of knowledge. More than half of my respondents saw commercialization as breeding secrecy rather than scientific openness. This concern is corroborated by other studies and surveys (Blumenthal et al. 1996, OTA 1995), which show that industrial sponsorship of academic research does indeed lead to reduced sharing of research results. For instance, almost three times as many industry-supported scientists (15 percent versus 5 percent of noncollaborating scientists) reported that their work had resulted in trade secrets, and almost twice as many (11 percent versus 6 percent) said they had refused requests from colleagues to share biological materials or research results.

Second, half of the scientists in my survey felt that commercialization shifts the focus too much away from science and toward financial gain. In particular, in their comments, they showed a great deal of worry about erosion of the quality and status of basic research. Again, independent studies confirm that, as one would expect, collaboration with industry makes scientists gravitate toward research topics that promise patentable or practical results rather than basic scientific insight. For instance, David Blumenthal and his colleagues reported that more than one-third of industry-sponsored (versus 14 percent of nonsponsored) scientists said they picked research topics with an eye to commercial applicability.

I am concerned about the perceived trend toward secrecy and neglect of basic research in genetic engineering. Biotechnology is still in its infancy, still working on its foundations. Imagine if early chemists had thrown their energies into developing profitable household products before the periodic table was discovered, or physicists had kept their discoveries of subatomic particles secret. The situation in recombinant DNA research is similar: Universities, laboratories and companies are patenting or keeping secret fundamental gene sequences and data bases. As my respondents note, one certain outcome is massive duplication of key research. An even greater cost is the loss of the scientific dialogue essential for solid progress.

The Fading "Great Promise"

Possibly the greatest promise of medical biotechnology is its ability to reduce human suffering by eliminating genetic diseases such as Huntington's disease, cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia, not just for a given individual but for successive generations. Genetic repair that would have such an effect is called germ-line therapy. Although such therapy is controversial and at best a long-term goal of biotechnology, it was advocated by the scientists in my 1995 U.S. survey by a margin of 2:1, provided a technique becomes available.

Yet consider the obstacles to achieving this goal. One is purely financial. Progress on germ-line therapy surely depends on broad advances in basic biomedical research, but basic research is exactly the area suffering most from loss of funding. Even if one could imagine early applications, what industry would be a likely sponsor of the research? Successful germ-line therapy might well be against the interests of the pharmaceutical industry, for example, since it would threaten its profits from therapies for chronic diseases. (Such issues already have arisen in agricultural biotechnology, where, for instance, techniques to reduce pests by using genetically engineered seed lines might be seen to threaten future demand for pesticides.)

The outlook becomes even dimmer in view of the shift to managed health care, which my respondents expected by a margin of 3:1 to reduce funding for recombinant DNA research. As some investigators noted, managed-care companies want to pay only for care and tend to neglect the costs of medical education and scientific research. Perhaps specific cost-saving bioengineered vaccines or drugs could stand up to such a short-term cost focus, but something as remote as germ-line therapy must fade into the dim future.

Another obstacle to germ-line therapy is, of course, the science itself. Most of the detective work remains to be done; also, much effort will have to go into understanding possible long-term side effects on individuals and the species, as well as any selective benefits of inherited diseases. But perhaps the greatest barriers are public resistance and the lack of rational public debate. It is in this area that scientists can make valuable contributions to help society reach well-balanced decisions.

Scientists as Educators of the Public

Ignorance of the public is a tremendous obstacle to the acceptance of biotechnology advances. In their comments, scientists expressed great concern about the extent of this ignorance, which was illustrated by public reactions to the movie Jurassic Park, for instance. Surveys back up this picture: For example, in a 1993 New Jersey telephone survey of the public, more than half of the respondents (including medical practitioners and food growers) said they had heard little or nothing about genetic engineering, whereas 80 percent believed they had adequate understanding of general science and technology (Hallman 1996).

Some scientists view the public not just as uninformed but as uninformable. But the experience of some of my respondents contradicts this: They describe the "everyday public" as eager to learn, understand and evaluate, and quickly coming up with the same questions the scientists ask of their research. Even in the views of many scientists working in the field, then, the prospect of educating the public to improve decision-making on biotechnology is not at all hopeless.

Clearly the scientific community itself must play an educational role if accurate information about DNA technologies is to be conveyed. But are scientists not viewed as biased by the public, so that efforts at education or scientific involvement in public debate would be a waste? (In fact, some respondents worried about the public's perception of scientists as devious, smart and evil!) Interestingly, this does not seem to be the case. The New Jersey survey mentioned above showed that university scientists, at least, are seen by the public as the most reliable source of information (ahead of environmentalist groups and far ahead of government and biotech companies) about biotechnology.

In other words, public-attitude surveys do not suggest that scientists should be reluctant to engage in public debate over applications of biotechnology. Many of the ethical and social issues obviously are outside the realm of science and engineering and must be addressed with the help of specialists from other fields, including philosophy, sociology, political science, law and theology. Nonetheless, the impetus to resolve them has to come from the scientists who are most interested in pursuing advanced research.

A comment from one investigator expresses well the enthusiasm that should go into communication with the public: "Perhaps if more people understood how rudimentary medicine is today and the potential gene therapy has to overcome so many problems, there would be more public enthusiasm. One day the physicians will cringe at the thought of having to prescribe daily insulin injections for diabetes or chemotherapeutics for some cancers. The public should know this!"


The author wishes to thank the members of the American Society for Microbiology for participating in the surveys, and the Richard Lounsbery Foundation for its support of the work.

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