Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Editorial Series

Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 1)

A wide misconception concerning biotechnology is the myth that this applied science is a ‘new’ science. In actuality biotechnology as a practice has been used by humans since the first organized agricultural societies. When the pre-historic farmer decided not to consume the best seeds he produced, but instead to plant them, thus began selective breeding. It would be wishful thinking to believe that the only myth concerning biotechnology is the above one.

Myths around biotechnology and genetics seem to be big sellers and this is one of the reasons we decided to create this blog. We believe that making the wider public better acquainted with this particular category of science would lift the black veil of ignorance and misconception, surrounding the history, the present and the future of biotechnology and genetics.

Another reason for the creation of this blog is the fact that biotechnology is not a static science; every day that passes adds new pages to the Gnostic field of the biosciences. In order for us to keep in contact to these continuous changes we saw fit to create this forum as to exchange opinions, notify each other about news and other updates that we judge to be important.

Our goal is to free biotechnology from the myths and misconceptions that surround this wonderful science. These myths disturb scientific progress in more ways than one; the main goal of these series of editorials is to give answers to a number of questions on that matter.

Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 2)

What is clear is the fact that after the bio-boom of the mid-90`s (remember Dolly the clone sheep?) there was an abrupt halt at the progress of the biosciences only a couple of years later. In the U.K. it was the G.M. food row that began from a statement that Prince Charles made about that matter and mounted up to be, a relentless media frenzy that lasted for months. It was a wonderful time for the tabloids, which rapidly adopted the term ‘Frankenstein food’ that lead the public into a whirlpool of mass hysteria (lets not forget that the times where indeed hard for the U.K. as the memory of the events concerning the mad cow (BSE) disease where fresh).

The concern was spread across Europe and in 1998 probably for the first time, solid scientific evidence were brought into the light that confirmed the potential dangers involved with Genetically Modified Food.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Clinton administration took an interest and deeply investigated the substrate of research concerning molecular biology. Without going into details, there were a series of measures that were brought forward in order to establish a much needed bases concerning the laws that governed scientific research. Even though in my opinion the measures taken at the time were positive, one can not ignore the fact that the decisions made were made under the pressure of public opinion in the midst of a world wide deep concern about applied molecular biology.

It would seem trivial but the mentality of public perception is one of the most important aspects of technology development in general. Some say necessity is the mother of invention (in contrast with the notion of Heraclitus who claimed that war is the father of all). Indeed the above is the driving force of invention but only in theory. Before we take a look at the hard-core issues that surround the economical interests of multinationals, we should take a look at ourselves and our notions (both as individuals and members of society) about biotechnology and genetics.

Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 3)

It would be unnecessary to make a list of legislations and laws that passed in the late 90`s concerning the biosciences, but it is a recognized fact that there were numerous legal issues that arose due to the development of these “new sciences” like biotechnology and genetics

There was a climate (and still is) of public pressure towards the governments of almost every country that had an active biotechnological research base. A very important pursuit is to understand the reasons that surround the negative perception of the public towards biotechnology.

The analysis of the relation between the biosciences and public perception is an issue that concerns sociological and philosophical studies. From the point of view of a biologist there are a few obvious points that there must be mentioned.

The first link in the chain that leads the public to adopt a negative opinion about biotechnology is the archetype of the fear of the unknown, a constant human condition upon which every form of exploitation has been built. Since the dawn of time, human-kind has created myths about monsters and unnatural creatures, this primitive fear paired with the factor of religion has created a definition of what is natural and what is not natural. Over the centuries the above fact has not been only an ecclesiastic phenomenon, the unknown has become a lever that shifts public opinion about almost every social issue that concerns human societies. Popular culture has also exploited the above condition thus bringing us excitement using our primal fears.

From the Chimera (a hybrid of a lion a goat and a snake) of the ancient Greek mythology to the late 19th century novel of H.G. Welles the ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ to the modern day films like Gattaca and The Island, the face of “evil” remains the unknown “what if?” The same motifs plague our fantasies over the millennia and for the first time in human history we face the probability that the myth will turn into reality (or so we think).

The main point of those who claim that biotechnology and genetics should be on a very tight leash is the fear of the creation of the unnatural and the invasive human intervention upon nature.
Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 4)
The public is simply uninformed about the matters that concern biotechnology and genetics, our societies have formed a belief about these issues that was fashioned from our deepest fears, the religious dogmata that are followed, popular culture and the media frenzy that surrounds every negative aspect of the biosciences. The problem is just that, the public has formed a belief instead of knowing the facts. This fast gap between belief and knowledge is being exploited in every way imaginable.

Religious lobbies in the United States have produced an invisible enemy in the face of biotechnology; these lobbies are backed from politicians who in turn create legislation bans and create laws that halt valuable research. The stem cell research issue and the ban that came from the Bush administration is just an example in the above chain.

The fountain of retreat lays on the ignorance of the individual. This is modern day Copernicanism. There are masses of people blinded by religious oppression that are lead to believe in ridiculous notions such as creationism, in parts of the world where valid scientific information is just a click away.

Even though the responsibility of the individual is of the highest degree (especially in western societies) it would be a hasty conclusion to limit the responsibility only upon our shoulders. The individual lives within a system, a sociological construct that has an amphidromous relation with the individual. Like religion the sociopolitical system feeds the individual the information that is required in order for this system not only to remain as the arche but to also have an economical gain. Here comes the everlasting role of the multinational companies.
Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 5)

Is the previous statement true? Are the religious lobbies responsible for the ban in stem cell research in U.S.?

In the matter concerning stem cells, ignorance serves two masters. If we were forced to categorize the way that drugs are created and even though it is not an accurate syllogism one could say that the production of pharmaceutical products is a process that involves more chemistry than biology.

Biotechnology and genetics paved the foreground for a big change in the production of pharmaceutical products. Stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize the production of medicine as well as the medical science itself. This was one of the fears of the pharmaceutical multinational companies. It is not a secret that Pfizer during the 2000 campaign was one of the strongest Bush supporters and the reason is quite simple. Drawing a parallel, in order to describe how important stem cell research is and its financial consequences to the pharmaceutical companies, is to consider what affect would have a water-powered car to the financial future of the oil companies. This sums up the reason that the pharmaceutical companies retain the “chemical status quo” of drug production. Consider that we live in a capitalist society – if the companies where to change their production methods so rapidly the cost would be unbearable, so through their political influence they preserve the pressure upon small biotechnology companies and the development of new methodologies is halted. The pharmaceutical companies do have much more influence in any government than any other religious or political lobby in their attempt to keep the existing status of drug production. As time goes by the pharmaceutical companies retain the status quo of production while at the same time they devour biotech companies.

It is inevitable that sometime in the future will are going to witness a change in the trends. The pharmaceutical companies will eventually begin to create an infrastructure related to biotechnology and then suddenly we will be “taught” about the good side of biotechnology (flip coin propaganda one day something is bad the next is good depending on the interest of the power that handles the propaganda machine). But as long as their financial interest demands it, biotechnology will be the potential bringer of global doom and destruction.
Monsters – Myths – Multinationals (part 6)

Unfortunately the biotech companies did their part to support the claims of the public that biotechnology is a dangerous practice. One name sums it up really, Monsanto….. the arch enemy of environmentalists, the giant of controversy, the multinational that introduced to the world MON863 branded as the toxic maize and the list keeps going. Monsanto did more to create a negative profile for the science of biotechnology that all the rest we have mentioned altogether. It’s a subject so huge by itself that will be dealt with in another series of editorials.

In the struggle between extremes, the scientific community stands alone and with the exception of a few cacophonies has managed to create an unwritten code which seems to hold a golden line of rationality and orthological thought. Off course, there will always be some eccentrics and glory hunters that will do anything to see their names making headlines. One of the most notable exemptions is the case of Dr. Zavos who in 2001 publicly proclaimed in a pompous and extremely indecent manner his attempt to create a human clone. Thankfully such examples are few.

The scientific community must become more exocentric; the progress of science must reach the public. The only means of burring the misconceptions that surround biotechnology is through the group effort of the scientific community. This blog represents an endeavor towards that direction. Hopefully we will be able to create through this blog an open forum that will give the opportunity to everybody to have direct access to an alternative portal of general and specialized information concerning biotechnology and the biosciences in general.

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