Three days and 7,500 words later, I’m happy to be back at my office desk this morning after an exciting week at the BIO conference. For those of you without the time to wade into the coverage, here are some concluding thoughts and a selection of links to the most memorable parts of the meeting. If you want the real-time rundown, click for the coverage from Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
I’ve never been to a conference quite like BIO. The ivory tower of academia is fortified enough that your typical scientific conference operates somewhat insulated from real-world dollars and cents, other than the constant calls for funding and the lavish laboratory supply displays on the exhibit floor. But at BIO, the world’s largest biotechnology conference, the conversation starts with business. Pharmaceutical companies advertise their wares, startups network with venture capital companies, countries and states tout their locale as fertile for biotech business, and countless panels discuss the impact of the world economy on the industry. The marketplace focus creates a different vibe, to say the least – from presentations handicapped by non-disclosure agreements to a significantly fancier dress code to audience questions that sound more like a shareholder’s meeting than a research seminar.
Those are not necessarily negatives – I only mean to point out how it was all a bit foreign to a former academic scientist such as myself. If nothing else, the emphasis on the bottom line produced more focused research talks – the science, in most cases, was expected to provide a concrete solution, not incremental progress. Biotechnology is a field vaguely-defined enough that those solutions were broad and ambitious: medical treatments, devices, and tests dominated the discussion, but there was also talk of ending world hunger with bio-engineered agriculture, rolling back climate change with biofuels, and protecting the world from misuse of biotechnology with biosecurity biotechnology. If occasionally one felt like the speaker was selling their science rather than presenting it for discussion – well, yeah, they were.
But with all the discussion of promising technologies for the future, the main obstacle appeared to be fairly low-tech: human communication. Many sessions hoped that the bright side of the global recession would be more partnerships between academic research centers and private companies, with industry helping academic scientists bridge “the valley of death” in commercialization while academia fills the gap created by industry R&D cuts. But the language barrier between the two entities doesn’t seem to be weakening, as evidenced by any panel where representatives from industry and university sat side by side. Disconnected motivations (profit vs. tenure), approaches (basic science vs. applied science), and pacing (quarterly reports vs. multi-year grant cycles) all would seem to make the academia-industry bridge an especially difficult construction project.
The other communication breakdown oft lamented at the conference was between the industry and the public. Any time a field comes together, an us vs. them mentality quickly forms – the sense that nobody but us understands just how critically important neuroscience or dentistry or insurance actuary is to the world. But biotechnology has its own battles to fight, after journalists and politicians have targeted products such as corn ethanol fuel and genetically-modified crops for reasons both valid and uninformed. Michael Specter, staff writer for the New Yorker, rightly said that many attacks against biotechnology are borne of unsubstantiated fear caused by scientific illiteracy. But Specter also criticized pharmaceutical companies for shooting themselves in the foot by being cagey with the press, sitting in “defensive crouches” rather than emphasizing the good things they do. A relevant lesson for a conference where media were blocked off from keynote addresses by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore, save for access during the first five minutes of the latter speech.
But criticisms aside, I had a great time covering the conference. The enthusiasm of the scientists – be they from industry or university – was infectious, and the motivations of all involved are pure despite the smell of profit. The full potential of science can’t be realized if it is kept within laboratory walls, and while the process of distributing science to the greater public can be messy, it is absolutely critical if we are to improve the world around us. Here’s a roundup of the favorite things I saw this week.
The Gee Whiz Sessions
University of Chicago at BIO
The Business Side of BioTech
The United States’ Narrowing Biotechnology Lead (ft. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria)
Surviving the Recession (post by Karla Melendez)
Improving the Science of Regulation (ft. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg)