It's been a rough year for biotechnology in the media. With GM food phobia reaching epidemic proportions around the globe, British Biotech and Monsanto beleaguered by hostile press on every side, angiogenesis inhibitors lauded, then pilloried in the papers, Amgen's leptin obesity drug trashed after dismal clinical results, and now the death of six patients in gene therapy trials, its difficult to recall a year where publicity has been as intense or as bad.
As news is first and foremost a business, it is inevitable that the more controversial aspects of biotechnology are increasingly finding their way into the headlines—after all, topicality rather than significance tends to sell newspapers. With column inches and broadcast time at a premium, science is often reduced to sound bites, issues are oversimplified, and viewpoints are polarized into universal acceptance or rejection of a particular technology, with little room for reasoned discourse. Unfortunately, while this extreme, bifurcated presentation of scientific, ethical, and moral issues increases circulation and ratings for media moguls, it also foments public anxiety and resistance to technology.
More than any other time, there exists a fundamental incompatibility between the nature of scientific progress and its presentation in the mass media. While science proceeds by slow, incremental advances, media coverage highlights advances as instantaneous and dramatic breakthroughs.
To complicate matters further, the equivocal nature of most scientific findings is lost in journalistic attempts to simplify science for mass consumption. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the promulgation of genetic reductionism and oversimplification of complex biological problems such as cancer and other chronic metabolic diseases.
As society comes into closer and closer contact with the new biotechnologies, the inevitable result will be the increasing politicization and widening public debate of the relative merits of the research. While biotechnology companies clearly cannot influence the way technologies are presented by the media, they can forestall and anticipate potential controversies by discussing, rather than sidestepping, some of the troublesome ethical and social issues involved. In this respect, the recruitment of ethicists to company scientific advisory boards is a step in the right direction. As the past year has shown, not all publicity is good publicity. And if companies do not make some attempt to address the so-called soft issues in biotechnology, the resultant media backlash could make this year's sensationalist and negative coverage of biotechnology research look like a tea party.
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Bad press and biotech. Nat Biotechnol 17, 1143 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/70650