Everyone in business has to worry about their marketplace demand, sourcing of materials and the cost of labor. One more item on that list needs to be the political will to invest in R&D.

It’s Election Day, with a lot at stake for both political parties. But the implications of who gets to control of Congress and various state legislatures goes beyond ideology because along with spending all those “contributions” we’ll be making next April, governments get to hand out tax breaks and provide support for public-private collaborations that help drive the economy.

Nowhere is such support more important than in the area of research, and few areas of research offer more potential going forward than biotechnology.

Unfortunately, most of what filters through to the public is the negative media coverage surrounding GMOs. But there are so many other areas broadly defined as biotechnology that are not only non-controversial, they are critical drivers of the 21st century economy.

For example, a recent op-ed by H. Stewart Parker, the former CEO of the biomedical research firm Immunex, detailed the statewide impact that the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, a private consortium, has had in just the last five years:

  • Some 275 start-up companies in biotech that have been funded and mentored, two-thirds of which are still operating
  • Life-science companies are now operating in 76 different cities in Washington, supporting more than 90,000 jobs
  • Infrastructure has been put in place in terms of legal, regulatory and financial services to support future growth in the life sciences sector

Parker listed several historic biotech breakthroughs that have taken place in Washington’s life sciences industry, most of which, to be honest, I was not aware: ultrasound, defibrillators, bone marrow transplants and kidney dialysis — all of which were materially advanced by devices and drugs developed in the state over the last couple decades.

Same science, different viewpoints

Now, if you were to poll the people in the street, I believe you’d find wide support for virtually everything on that list above. When it comes to biomedical advances, most people are enthusiastic about such developments.

Yet if you ask that same sample how they feel about genetically engineered food crops, the majority would express serious concerns, if not outright disagreement — even though we’re talking about very similar applications of the same science.

Why is that? Why is there broad support for medical progress using biotech tools and processes, but widespread controversy over the application of those same tools in advancing agriculture?

 

Some of the reasons are obvious, and have been discussed here at length: The focus on producer, rather than consumer benefits; the prominence of corporate entities more concerned with profits than progress; and the ham-handed response by the food industry to media coverage critical of genetic engineering.

But there is a deeper reason, I believe, and it was referenced in Parker’s op-ed: Without strong political support, people have no reason to view biotechnology as a priority that might affect their lives, their wallets, their values. And by political support, I mean everything from investment in public research universities to private-sector tax credits to the creation of public-private collaborations tasked to support long-range R&D developments.

When policymakers step up to provide all that — and the results are well-defined and widely publicized — the popular support for all kinds of high-tech is strengthened, which offers the potential for hitching genetic engineering for food crops to biotech development in medicine to gain much-needed legitimacy.

Few things are less sexy than long-term “basic research,” or less visible on the radar of most policymakers. Yet we embrace all that modern science and technology has created when it benefits our lifestyles, everything from telecommunications to IT to medicine to advanced manufacturing — all of which originated with years of painstaking research and development.

Here’s hoping that as contentious as the current political climate has become, that one area of consensus might eventually be the necessity of investing in our future, of supporting the growth of intellectual and well as financial capital needed to support the economy of the 21st century — virtually every growth area of which is highly dependent on technology and the scientists who build the platforms and the entrepreneurs who commercialize the breakthroughs.

There are GMO labeling measures on the ballot in Oregon and Colorado, and it’s expected that they will win approval. If so, perhaps that might help re-focus the attention of policymakers on biotechnology, not just to put a Band-Aid on what they perceive as a controversy but to direct the resources of government in support of the economic developments of the future.

We all benefit when science can be harnessed to improve any sector of the economy, and when it comes to biotech, the future is about jobs and growth and prosperity, not about labeling statements on food packaging that few people bother to read, anyway.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.