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Biotech’s closed doors

Posted 20/05/2010 by RoseS

The global biotechnology industry has long prided itself on its transparency, honesty and integrity. Its core technology, GM – the ability to manipulate the genetic material of life – has come in for much criticism, with biotech practitioners accused variously of creating ‘Frankenstein foods’, endangering the natural environment or even ‘playing God’. In recent years, though, the industry appears to have been gaining ground, appearing to win over some – if not all – of the public’s trust with its willingness to share results, collaborate with other disciplines and debate openly and fairly the social and ethical issues the sector faces.

At the world’s biggest biotechnology meeting BIO in Chicago this month, however, the industry has taken a retrograde step. Months ahead of this year’s meeting – which reportedly attracted more than 15,000 delegates, including dozens of journalists such as myself – conference organisers proudly announced a stellar line up of plenary event speakers, most notably among them former US presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and former US vice-president and climate change lobbyist Al Gore. A clear signal of the seriousness with which politicians are beginning to view the industry’s importance and its significance for future jobs and wealth creation.

Sadly, however, none of the journalists attending the meeting had the chance to hear what any of these luminaries had to say. Just days before the event, we were told we weren’t invited to these plenary sessions – although as a later concession we were granted, by special request, access to the first five minutes only at the start of Al Gore’s talk, which also happened to be in the middle of another press event. Most declined to go, and several I spoke to weren’t too impressed. Other delegates I talked with after the various plenary sessions, meanwhile, told me there really wasn’t much to get excited about. Yes, the speakers had been candid, but they didn’t have anything particularly newsworthy or reportable to say anyway.

But the real story is of course not what we missed but the fact that we weren’t invited. It’s the sort of scenario you might expect in countries such as China, North Korea or Iran, but certainly not in the US. Now more than ever, as it prepares to tackle some of the world’s grand challenges of food and energy production, the biotech industry needs to be seen to be operating openly and honestly. If it wants to win over the public’s confidence, it can’t afford to be seen to operate behind closed doors.

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy Editor

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