To demystify the ways biotechnology benefits us all, the industry needs to start talking
Loyal viewers of 1990s Sunday morning talk shows may recall a slogan that still sparkles with catchiness: “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” In one example among the many now immortalized on YouTube, that line comes at the end of a lush montage that rolls behind a woman’s purring voice: “At BASF, we don’t make the cooler; we make it cooler. We don’t make the jeans; we make them bluer. We don’t make the toys; we make them tougher.”
By advertising industry standards, the campaign was a smash hit. In 2002, toward the end of the blitz, the agency that produced the commercials basked in its awesomeness, issuing a press release that cited “nearly 70 percent of respondents recognized the slogan and 48 percent of all respondents both recognized it and correctly attributed it to BASF”—achieving a Madison Avenue Zen state called “true awareness.”
Yet just two years later, The New York Times reported that BASF was changing direction. Why? Because when asked how BASF made things better, those surveyed responded with puzzled looks. So BASF rewrote its slogan, simply labeling itself “the chemical company.”
That might work if you are a Fortune 500 company with a bottomless well of cash for advertising and rebranding. But what lessons can companies and trade groups lacking such war chests do to spread the word about the good things biotech brings to life and have it stick?
Failure to Communicate
First, people need to know what biotechnology is, and on average they don’t. If you ask a handful of people on any street in the world to define biotechnology, they will probably talk about genetically engineered foods or foods that contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It makes sense that most people would come up with that as a first example, because a recent Google search produced about 700,000 more hits for “biotechnology AND food” than for “biotechnology AND drugs,” and three times as many as “biotechnology AND fuel.” And while food is a fundamental part of biotechnology, it’s only a part.
The other thing that most people don’t know is that biotechnology is not new. Even the term is nearly a century old—coined in 1919 by Hungarian engineer Karl Ereky. The application of the science is many centuries older. On a history timeline, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), lists the oldest example of the field as the Chinese using “the first antibiotic, moldy soybean curds” to treat boils in 500 BCE.
Some far more recent evidence reveals the general public’s lack of knowledge about biotechnology. In 2003, for example, a poll from the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University concluded: “Americans see clear benefits to society from new developments in science and medicine but at the same time they hold strong reservations about new techniques in biotechnology such as human cloning and genetic therapy.” In many cases, the reservations about GMOs in food and concerns about human cloning get extended to the entire field, and in nearly all cases the concerns arise from very limited knowledge.
Connecting the Dots
I asked a few members of the Scientific American Worldview editorial board about ways of improving the public understanding of biotechnology, and several themes emerged: Be direct and persistent. Own what you do, explain what you’re good at and why it matters to your audience. Don’t assume your audience knows about your product—even in cases where some of the people you’re trying to reach actually work for the company making the product. Seek a receptive ear where people live and work and hang out online. Be proud of achievements and frank about failure, and root conversations about biotech in the familiar.
“It’s all about how do you help consumers connect those dots,” says Mary Boote, CEO of the Global Farmer Network, which she describes as an international agricultural advocacy group “that gives farmers a voice in the global food security dialogue, with a vision of that helping farmers access the technology they need to boost production in sustainable ways.” For consumers in the developed world who enjoy a glass of wine or some cheese with that wine, Boote points out, “the enzymes used in both of those are genetically modified.”
Though she balks at technology-denigrating neologisms like “Frankenfish”—which some activists use to describe a genetic mash-up in aquaculture—GMO is far from a dirty word to her. (See “Communication Breakdown,” Scientific American Worldview, 2015.) “It is a scientifically reviewed and supported technology that is allowing us to feed more people on less land with more efficient use of our natural resources,” Boote says. Such things are desirable, and increasingly essential, in a world whose middle class will number an estimated 4.9 billion by 2030. If we can grow a genetically modified fish a little faster and with less feed than its wild cousin, she asks, isn’t that preferable to overfishing and possibly doing without?
“But we don’t always think in those terms,” Boote cautions. For instance, “one of the benefits of biotechnology that we don’t see as consumers is the water efficiency being engineered in seeds. We’re looking at drought-tolerance.” In California and Texas, the summer drought of 2015 was so extreme that growing anything at all was really dependent on the improvement of seeds, some of which are genetically modified. “When you go to the grocery store and the shelves are full, and you go to the farmer’s market, and all the booths are full, you don’t take note of it,” she says. “You’d only notice it if the shelves were empty.”
Likewise, people in the United States don’t notice empty shelves an ocean away. “There are a lot of places in this world with a very different experience,” Boote explains. “They would give anything to have the choices that we do.” She adds, “There hasn’t been a need to connect those dots because we haven’t gone hungry, because our children haven’t gone hungry.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
Joe Damond, BIO’s senior vice president of international affairs, points out another circumstance that has made it harder for biotechnology to connect the dots: It is largely hidden from public view. “So much of it happens behind the scenes,” he says.
Occasionally, though, a biotech breakthrough literally ends up in people’s hands, and BIO and others need to do a better job of letting consumers know about these triumphs. “Coke has developed biodegradable plastic bottles that are biotech-engineered,” Damond says, citing news accounts of the company’s partnership with three small biotech companies to develop the plant-based material. “It’s part of their corporate environmental plan. I don’t know that they’ve done a lot of advertising behind it, but anybody who buys a plastic bottle of Coke is affecting the environment in a positive way, but they probably have no idea.”
By comparison, information technology (IT) has it easy. In fact, Damond believes, the rise of IT has played a role in pushing biotech behind the curtain. IT is ubiquitous in our daily lives, and in the case of smartphones, literally all up in our faces. “Some folks in the biotechnology industry get a little peeved when people say the ‘tech industry,’ referring to the information-technology sector,” Damond says. “I’ve been to meetings where we have to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute—we’re the tech industry too.’ Except our technology, in some ways, is more advanced than anybody’s. It’s life that we’re working with.”
Healthcare’s Narrowing Divide
Biotechnology occupies three sectors, Damond notes—healthcare, agriculture and industry—that people don’t think about much unless, say, they or someone close to them is ill. And even then, the products of healthcare, with recent blockbuster drugs like Enbrel and Humira, have become subsumed into the larger pharmaceutical industry.
“Ten, 15 years ago, when I started getting involved in the industry,” Damond says, “there was more of a division between the big pharma companies who chemically synthesized drugs, or what we call small molecules, and the biotech companies like Genentech and Amgen.” Biotechnology was new then, he says, and “there were smaller companies. Now those lines have really blurred.”
Over that time, the larger companies that used to do a lot of research in-house have come to depend on the biotech sector to innovate new drugs. Big pharma steps in later to supervise the regulatory phase, manufacturing and marketing, all of which can take years. That means investors in biotech inventions must be patient. Many products go bust for the few that succeed, and when one succeeds, the cost of everything—including failure—is priced into the new product.
“We’d rather people be aware of what goes into the development of these products, how risky it is, because all they see is how expensive the drugs are when they come out the other end of the pipeline,” Damond laments. This makes it difficult for a healthcare consumer to draw the distinction between the high cost baked into the price of a new drug and price-gouging for old, off-patent drugs.
Assault on Innovation
“The whole concept of innovation is under assault, especially the global patent system,” says Stephen M. Sammut, senior fellow in healthcare management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “We need to educate the public about the scientific challenges of biotechnology”—and how discoveries translate into clinical advances.
Like Damond, Sammut attributes part of the problem to the growing complexity of the biomedicine ecosystem since the birth of biotechnology 40 years ago. In the 1980s, companies like Genentech and Amgen, beneficiaries of the recombinant DNA they helped pioneer, developed the first products—synthetic insulin and EPO—and became Wall Street darlings. “Biotech started almost more as an investment curiosity than an outgrowth of science,” Sammut observes.
After those useful drugs came a long series of hype-and-busts, with one cancer “magic bullet” drug after another fading after showing early promise. At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry slowly absorbed biotechnology. “It has been very frustrating,” Sammut says. “People have yet to understand the challenges, risks and rewards of drug and vaccine development.”
He holds up Gilead’s hepatitis C drug Sovaldi as a poster child for this misunderstanding: “The drug opened the door for an immense amount of public education about contracting hepatitis C and why it represents such a problem, what the health consequences for the people affected are.” Instead, he says, “there’s been no real public dialog about what Sovaldi represents in the way of extraordinary science and clinically, to say nothing of the fact of what it really costs to develop that drug.” Most public attention, including that from the U.S. Senate, has focused on the drug’s price tag.
Go on the Offense
“When you’re playing defense, it’s hard to get ahead,” says Boote. “It’s much better to get out in front of the new technology with trusted and credible voices that not only talk about how the technology works but also why they use it and how it impacts each of our lives in a positive way.” Boote adheres to a simple approach: Provide the information, then let the people decide. It’s hard to argue against allergenic-free peanuts, for instance, when everyone knows a child with peanut allergies. It’s hard to argue for increased use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals when you can build bug-resistance and soil-conservation characteristics into the genetic makeup of seeds.
Boote underscores another point: Don’t take the audience’s knowledge of your products for granted. She notes examples of companies where executives organize events to spend time with workers explaining the impact of the very products they make. “There are several companies that have thousands of employees working in their offices, working on that product, who have no idea how that end product is utilized,” she explains.
If the people working in the industry don’t hear it from the source, they’ll do what everyone else does: seek out information wherever they can find it. And too often, Boote says sadly, the biotechnology narrative gets hijacked from experts by fear-mongers. “The effect can be amplified exponentially on social media, where who delivers the message is as important as the message itself,” she says. (See “Social Realism”) It’s a place where television celebrities with a gazillion Twitter followers can gain acceptance as, for instance, vaccine or nutrition experts.
“Those of us in the world of biotechnology have to do a radical reassessment of what we’re communicating and not communicating and how we’re communicating,” Sammut explains. As someone who has spent four decades in the industry, he concludes, “we need to be hiring people a third my age who understand how the younger generation thinks.”
Illustration by © ALEX NABAUM
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