"Although the socially responsible investing industry has not yet taken an official position on genetic engineering or related
biotechnologies, discussion has begun. Consistent with its underlying concern for safety and sustainability in all corporate
practices, socially responsible investing is wrestling with the question of whether biotechnology represents risk or opportunity.
Indeed, difficulty exists in deeming the industry socially responsible when public awareness of biotechnology is low and opinion
on the industry is split."
From that perspective, any conversation about socially responsible investing in the life sciences market is loaded with "on
the one hand" and "on the other hand" caveats. Most socially responsible investors, for example, are warm to the idea of producing
genetically engineered food crops that are immune to viruses, drought, and insects. More food to feed a hungry world is a
boon to a socially conscious investor, although some social investors do voice concerns over chemically produced agricultural
products. On the other side of the coin, socially conscious investors like Domini don't appreciate the trend of big biotech
and pharmaceutical firms waltzing into communities and demanding huge tax breaks to set up shop there.
That's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of contradictions in biopharmacutical-based social investing. Domini harkens back
to a trade conference in 1996, when the topic of life sciences and social investing first came to the public spotlight. Says
"At a meeting of the Social Investment Forum in December 1996, the Bull and the Bear positions on biotechnology were presented.
The focus was less on high investment returns than on whether developments in biotechnology present benefits. The Bear took
the position that while genetic engineering may be absolutely accurate in the test tube, it is not necessarily so in a living
organism. Concerns were expressed that biotechnology does not merely accelerate natural science, but instead alters it, leading
to the 'fish do not mate with tomatoes in nature' analogy. The Bear also expressed concern about the potential of the industry
to engage in potentially harmful research on an uninformed public. The Bull took the position that the contributions of biotechnology,
including, for example, a reduction in the use of pesticides, far outweighs the theoretical risk that may exist in developing
new products. The Bull's general position was that the science is effective and trustworthy, and the trend, particularly in
food development, represents exciting potential for increasing crop production."
I guess the thinking even among so-called ethical investors is that when it comes to the biopharmaceutical market, you can't
live with it and you can't live without it. Such investors seem to love the life-enhancing medicines and therapies the biopharmceutical
industry produces but hate the financial clout and corporate power that leading lights in the industry often wield.
Whatever your take on the issue, know that SRI isn't going away. In fact, it's growing more powerful on its own. More than
$1 out of every $9 under professional management in the United States is involved in SRI. And more than 11% of all investment
assets under professional management in the US—$2.16 trillion out of $19.2 trillion—are in professionally managed portfolios
using one or more of the three SRI strategies that define socially responsible investing in the US—screening, shareholder
advocacy, and community investing.
My take? What's important to you when you make your decisions regarding how you will invest your hard-earned dollars may vary
dramatically from your neighbor, your brother, or your friends. So it's important to remember that socially responsible investing
is extremely subjective. The issues that are vital to you may not signify much to another investor, whether you're in the
life sciences realm or not. You need to make your decisions based on your sense of comfort and your value system. Ironically,
in this area of investing that's riddled with questions of right and wrong, there is no right or wrong answer.
Celebrity author and business/finance commentator for CNN and Fox News, Brian O'Connell has written for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, Doylestown, PA, 215.230.1070, firstname.lastname@example.org