A 25-Year Retrospective on the Public's Perception of the Biopharmaceutical and Biotech Industry

Published on: 
BioPharm International, BioPharm International-03-01-2012, Volume 25, Issue 3

This month, we rewind to an article titled "Demystifying the New Biology."

The 1988 article discusses how the general public viewed science, and biology in particular, at the time it was written. "Even educated people remain wary of the new biology and a host of mysteries such as recombinant DNA and monoclonal antibodies" and "People do not understand what is occurring in the nation's laboratories," were just a few of the comments made by the author, Leonard Anderson (1). BioPharm asked its Editorial Advisory Board members to comment on how far the world has come in respect to understanding, acknowledging, and supporting the work of biotechnology. We also asked our board members whether they think the industry has done a better job of informing the public about its work and products, as the author suggested 25 years ago. Below are a few of their responses.

Gary Walsh, Associate Professor, Dept. of Chemical and Environmental Science and Materials, University of Limerick

"The public is invariably wary of the new and the unknown. However, 25 years on, 'modern' biotechnology is a mature science, with a positive track record, particularly as it applies to healthcare. Public acceptance has been encouraged via education and effective communication. For many years now, genetic engineering and related technologies have been included in the curriculum at secondary level. Moreover, the advent of the Internet has facilitated instant knowledge access which has, in turn, encouraged, if not demanded, improved communications from industry and educators alike. This change has helped demystify the science and applications of biotechnology and makes plainly obvious the profound positive impact that biotechnology has on medicine."

Michiel E. Ultee, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, Laureate Biopharmaceutical Services


"As one who has attended annual meetings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) for the past 15 years, I have seen numerous protest movements at this meeting against biotechnology. However, they fall into two categories. First, genetically modified foods, where I have even seen protesters dressed as giant vegetables or fruits. Second, there has been a long-standing protest against the use of animal testing in R&D. Note, however, that these are general protests against pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and are not restricted to biotechnology. I have not seen protests against biopharmaceuticals per se, which have seen explosive growth during the past 25 years with new blockbuster protein drugs for multiple indications.

"Furthermore, the public has become more aware of biopharmaceuticals in many ways, including through the many treated patients who have benefited from biotech drugs. There has been a resurgence of interest in jobs in applied biotechnology, resulting in collegiate majors such as Biomedical Engineering being one of the most popular today."

Eric S. Langer, President and Managing Partner, BioPlan Associates

"Twenty-five years has brought a lot of change in public perception of biotechnology. On one hand, we can point to facts like the following: a disproportionate percentage of pharma pipeline products are now biotech products; biosimilars are seen as key to healthcare reform; Big Pharma is now really Big Bio/Pharma; major university education programs in biotechnology around the globe are growing far faster than many mainstream science curricula; and biopharma continues to be a strong growth segment even in a down economy.

"Yet, cartoons continue to portray biopharma as creating genetically modified mice/tomatoes, and popular movies continue to show biotech as a modern-day Frankenstein. So, although we may have replaced Jeremy Rifkin-style activism, we still have concern for the future. This incredibly complex science has the potential to improve healthcare for each of us. So the tension between optimism for the future, and fear of the unknown will keep policymakers, cartoonists, and everyday people on the edge of their seats."

Krish Venkat, Principal, AnnVen Research

"Biotech companies do not have the time or appropriate resources to educate the public. A better approach would be to support national and local biotech organizations to work with public and environmentalists to help them understand the immense benefits of genetic engineering and biotechnology."

John Curling, President, John Curling Consulting AB

"The 1988 article is interesting. I believe it describes a steady-state between the biotechnology/medical science industries and the general public. As science and technology probe deeper into our understanding of life, the complexity of our explanations or models for biological existence increases. How, then can the public keep pace with the current thesis? The answer is that we can't—we are always behind and the understanding gap is constant. To protect ourselves, we tend to live by the Precautionary Principle, which notes that, 'When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.' We are healthily skeptical. The press reports 'news' but generally has a poor understanding of the timeline from breakthrough to medical product.

Our industry needs to be cognizant of the dynamics of R&D and its translation to the benefit to humankind. For example, gene therapy was described as early as 1972, but it has taken scientific prowess until December 2011 to demonstrate beneficial treatment of Haemophilia B. A possible conclusion is that 'new biology' is still just that."


1. L. Anderson, BioPharm Intl. 1 (1), pp. 16-17 (1988).