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Tech Industry

Science and its discontents

CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos says last week's biotech conference mayhem highlights consumer power and industry PR issues.

SAN FRANCISCO--They just don't make protestors like they used to.

Downtown was under siege here last week as a result of the BIO 2004 conference, a large annual convention for life science companies and researchers. Various bands of protest groups promised to picket the meeting, hoping to shut down the conference, if possible.

Last Tuesday, several helicopters swirled overhead. Meanwhile, 13 police vans and a Hummer were parked in a line atop a freeway overpass. Howard Street, where the Moscone Convention Center is located, was shut down to cars, and pedestrians needed a conference badge to walk on the block where the center is located. Police and TV news crews lined every intersection, and rush hour traffic was jammed.

Not that many protestors showed up. A woman looked up from her cell phone conversation to hand me a flyer on the dangers of processed milk.

The most visible protester was the guy playing an upturned margarine tub like a drum and chanting, "Power to the people, stop the corporations" in front of the W Hotel.
Another person was protesting homelessness. The most visible protester was the guy playing an upturned margarine tub like a drum and chanting, "Power to the people, stop the corporations" in front of the W Hotel. It was a bundle of messages, a strategy similar to those taken by PC retailers on a three-day weekend.

The Golden Gate Bridge was reportedly shut down, but that was because a semi truck pulled a U-turn after the driver realized he didn't have the toll money. A policeman in full riot gear strolled by, carrying a cardboard tray of four mocha Frappuccinos from Starbucks.

Although conference organizers got the city to waste thousands of dollars on a fizzled protest, the anticipated anger underscores one of the growing dilemmas for the high-tech industry. Increasingly, the public and companies are at odds over the safety and necessity of scientific progress.

Public objections to stem cell research have led to the elimination of several research projects. Recent reports have begun to question nanotechnology, following a call for a laissez-faire approach.

A lot of the objections seem far-fetched. Biotechnology, after all, started in 6000 B.C. when Sumerians learned to brew beer with yeast. Genetically modified foods have been studied since the 19th century with Gregor Mendel. So far, the main problem with genetically modified foods, like tomatoes, is that they taste terrible.

Few critics point out that the SARS epidemic was derived from foods found in traditional markets.

From the early Pinto to DES, corporations have a terrible record when it comes to safety.
Members of the scientific community are right in some ways when they assert that many of the protesters are objecting out of lack of knowledge.

Consumers, however, are a lot less forgiving these days. One of the unintended consequences of the Internet has been the surly, outspoken citizen. Even when acting without the right information, consumers can win.

At the same time, the protesters bring up an important point. Namely, from the early Pinto to DES, corporations have a terrible record when it comes to safety.

A recent research report said computer dust contains widely used fire prevention compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, that have been found to cause health problems in lab animals. It's uncertain whether the PDBE levels are problematic, but prolonged exposure seems to pose a health threat.

The spread of Mad Cow disease was prompted by inappropriate animal feed. A French company responded by inventing a handheld that, when inserted into human or animal food, can determine its genetic makeup. It's an important invention, but you'll never look at a plate of stadium nachos the same way again.

The problems are further compounded by the fact that the nature of science means that it is often wrong. In "The Book of Knowledge," a science text book penned by Ivy League professors in 1913, biologists describe my ethnic predecessors as "excitable" and incapable of deep abstract thought, a description that really only applies to my uncle Nick.

Better and more insistent public outreach could resolve many of the differences. Both researchers and companies seem to have a firmer grasp of the problem of persuasion than in the past. This fall, scientists will gather at the University of California at Berkeley's Molecular Foundry, a nanotechnology center sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, to debate the potential ill effects of the industry.

It might take a long time to educate and convince the public, but unless the effort is taken up in earnest, progress will continue to be hampered by a guy with a plastic bucket.