A Nano "Think and Do" Tank
Assisting start-ups with government agencies, investors, corporations, universities and national
Innovative technologies usually meet with opposition of varying sorts. Change usually disrupts the
status quo to the discomfort of vested interests or the just plain comfortable. Revolutions are
rarely tidy, even when they are bloodless. Experience with the revolution being wrought through
agricultural biotechnology suggests some lessons that may be applicable to nanotechnology.
Potholes Alert -- Nanotechnology & Agricultural Biotechnology – Will the Sequel be True to the Original?
Some players working to midwife nanotechnology are convinced they will have smoother sailing
than ag biotech because nano “won’t make the same mistakes.” What were those mistakes? It is often
asserted (from polemical activist talking points) that biotech companies 1) tried to sneak their
products in under the radar screen, 2) continue to resist consumers’ right to know by opposing
labeling, and 3) failed to lead with products delivering consumer benefits, among other missteps.
As participants with more than 35 years laboring in these vineyards, we recall things differently.
Let’s take these indictments in that order: 1) A casual review of contemporaneous newspaper and
magazine articles will quickly banish any delusions that stealth was involved. Rarely has anything
been done in the glare of more spotlights and prior scrutiny than ag biotech has received. 2) Biotech
companies resist labeling not because they don’t respect consumer wishes, but because their food-chain
partners, the companies owning billion dollar food brands, don’t want labels that make no scientific
sense and which activists have been very frank about wanting to use in organizing boycotts and cynical
misinformation campaigns. Don’t take our word for it, here is Geert Ritsema, from Friends of the Earth,
Europe: “If these products all have to be labeled, who is going to put it on the market? It’s a big risk
for food companies and for retailers because they run the risk that the clients don't take the product.
The market rejections and the consumer rejections plus the labeling laws will make sure that GMOs will
not enter in Europe.” Consumers are certainly better off when label content is based on useful fact rather than special interest group prejudice with the aim of cynical fear-mongering. And 3) farmers, the consumers of improved seeds – which is, after all, the essence of agricultural biotechnology – have, in fact adopted biotech crops at historically unprecedented rates because of the superior performance and value they deliver. Furthermore, data from around the world (even in Europe) show that most consumers don’t in fact care whether food is biotech or not, continuing to make food purchase decisions on the basis of quality and cost. So what is the problem?
Historical analysis will show that biotech companies have made some mistakes. Self inflicted wounds like StarLink and Prodigene were not helpful. And if some of the larger multinationals had been able to manage their competition with one another so as to allow them more effectively to unite and coordinate against activist attacks, the market penetration rates of biotech would have been more rapid (which is nevertheless saying something!). But the biggest mistake big ag biotech companies made was to bring forth revolutionary products at a time and in a context (mad cow, hoof and mouth, etc.) that left them vulnerable to demagoguery by ascendant activist groups who have disproportionate power and influence in parliamentary European politics. As someone once said “You can always tell a leader by the arrows in his back.”
The problems faced by innovative, revolutionary technologies in Europe are the result of a regional pathology of politics and culture that will be overcome in time. (As Jared Diamond has noted (Guns, Germs and Steel, W.W. Norton, 1998, p. 257): “Any society goes through social movements or fads, in which economically useless things become valued or useful things devalued temporarily. Nowadays, when almost all societies on Earth are connected to each other, we cannot imagine a fad’s going so far that an important technology would actually be discarded. A society that temporarily turned against a powerful technology would continue to see it being used by neighboring societies and would have the opportunity to reacquire it by diffusion (or would be conquered by neighbors if it failed to do so).”
Nanotechnologies are opposed by some of the same folks who oppose ag biotech, for some of the same conservative, anti-corporate, and parochial reasons. But innovative technologies have had an easier road in other parts of the world, most of all in North America. It is possible to extract from the American ag biotech experience a number of lessons about facilitators of success which are applicable to nano. Herewith a short list.
The role of government regulation -- Some argue that a purely libertarian environment of zero or low regulation is best. Most feel there is a role for government regulation to ensure baseline levels of safety and provide a Good housekeeping Seal of Approval.
We believe there is an urgent need for a “Coordinated framework for the Regulation of Nanotechnology.” There is a reason the US is the epicenter of ag biotech R&D and commercial application – US Government policies, bipartisan and consistent over more than three decades, have provided strong IPR and a predictable regulatory environment that has enabled business executives to plan and make calculated decisions. The Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology, promulgated by the White house Office of Science & Technology Policy in 1986, played no small role in providing this enabling environment. Most of the elements needed are available in regards to nanotechnology to enable a similar model to be developed and promulgated. What is missing is a strong push from the business community to galvanize USG officials. This should be forged and applied ASAP.
Elements essential to the success of the effort will include: A rigorous but honest accounting of applicable regulatory authorities, with an unflinching acknowledgement of identified gaps; credible proposals to fill or mitigate the gaps; and a communications script that can reduce the previous to manageable and intrinsically reasonable and credible sound bites.
The Importance of Communications -- The industry needs a coherent message script employing succinct and credible sound bites. These should feature in every interview with or representation by industry spokespersons. The industry also needs an aggressive but carefully calibrated and focused proactive communications program. This should include proactive meetings with key editorial boards around the country; aggressive pursuit and correction of stories that are erroneous, biased, or negative; respectful and artful recruitment of third party validators and allies from among those who have no direct pecuniary interest in nanotech products but who benefit or will benefit therefrom. A list should be identified of such third party spokespersons, enriched with academic researchers, to be on media call to provide balance to reporters writing stories.
The Importance of Politics -- There is a need also for a Capitol Hill/beltway strategy to consolidate and strengthen bipartisan support and quash ill considered legislative proposals – there is a critical and urgent need especially to forge alliances with key Democrats and develop a sustained and supportive bipartisan legislative program.
If the nanotechnology industry unites behind a program aimed at accomplishing these three things quickly, they will have a smoother passage than they now have any reason to expect. Otherwise, many potholes and much avoidable delay awaits.
L. Val Giddings, Ph.D., President
PrometheusAB – Advanced Expertise in US and Global Biotechnology
P.O. Box 8254 -- Silver Spring, MD 20907 USA
202-345-3671 -- LVG@PrometheusAB.com
Mark Mansour, Attorney, Foley & Lardner LLP