Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Fear Factor

(Excerpt from Alan McHughen, Nature Biotechnology 26, 1226 (2008)

Biotechnologists perhaps more than other scientists, are often puzzled as to why the public is so often anxious, if not outright suspicious, of their craft. "If only they knew the facts" is a common lament. As a result, biotechnologists may attempt to engage the public to explain the science and thereby mollify public wariness.

But even after acquiring a reasonable understanding of the scientific facts, many people remain dubious and fearful. In The Science of Fear, non-scientist Daniel Gardner teases out the fear factors rampaging through the anxious public persona, illuminating popular science phobia.

Gardner does not focus on biotechnology, but he does address familiar questions, including the long standing conundrum, "The same person who doesn't think twice about lighting up a cigarette will march in the streets demanding a ban on products that have never been proven to have caused so much as a single case of indigestion."

Opportunistic activists make a livelihood from scaring people about biotechnology. And because the scientific community does not-and cannot-guarantee absolute safety of biotechnology or its products, the public infers a lack of confidence, a warning that fearsome disasters are inevitable.

True, scientists cannot prove that eating a genetically modified papaya will not harm the consumer. That disclaimer alone is sufficient to scare off many prospective consumers, who then happily eat a traditionally bred papaya similarly lacking any safety guarantee. In comparing the incorrectly perceived high risk of one food against the incorrectly perceived low risk of the alternative food, consumers mistake the actual risk differential between their choices. Now, in the real world, the consequence of this dichotomy doesn't usually matter, because both GM and non-GM versions of the papaya are safe, nutritious and unlikely to cause harm, so Joe Consumer is never forced to face and reconcile his confounding perceptions.

According to Gardner, radon gas kills some 41,000 people in Europe and the United States each year, in contrast to GM foods' zero body count, yet people are far more afraid of GM foods than radon. Why? Because radon is 'natural', whereas GM foods are manmade, and therefore unnatural and inherently dangerous. In regard to papayas, the GM version is considered unnatural, while the traditional version is perceived as natural.

Gardner colloquially describes two human cognitive decision-making centers, Gut and Head. Gut, of course, from whence we get 'gut reaction' and 'gut feeling', is impulsive, emotional and subjective, whereas Head is logical, rational and objective. Gut is driven by emotions such as fear, and, if fear is a factor, the body follows Gut reaction with little rational analysis.

Historically, all manner of fearmongering marketers (including anti-biotechnology activists) exploit Gut reaction, knowing they'll make more sales and converts if people don't look rationally and critically at what's on the table. As Gardner shows, Gut doesn't evaluate numbers and probabilities. A one-in-a-million chance of some personal catastrophe is a near certainty to Gut; the mere presence of a carcinogen-especially a synthetic chemical-at parts-per-billion concentration is a death sentence from cancer. Trying to hold a rational discussion with the fearful is futile, because the rational Head, overwhelmed by Gut fear, is rendered hors de combat.

Alan McHughen is in the Department of Botany & Plant Sciences at the University of California, Riverside, California

Comments from malaysia4biotech:

Public concerns should be addressed and efforts should be undertaken to educate the public. The scientific community should take a lead role in this area. Perhaps, funds should be allocated from their grants to create public awareness on their research areas. This is being practiced by certain research institutes in UK.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Biotech Enablers: The Key Factor

The National Biotechnology Policy was launched almost four years ago and will enter into the second phase in two years time. Where are we and how far are we from achieving our goals and targets? Much effort has been channelled into realising our dream of making a mark in the biotechnology sector. Infrastructure, various schemes and incentives, funds, and training are some of the key areas dealt with.

However, there is one area that cannot be changed with any sort of training or schemes. It is the attitude and the mind-set. In one major biotech conference I attended, two prominent speakers from world renowned companies spoke about their experiences about developing products and commercialising. At the end of these talks, a top officer from a local government agency had this to say, “Tell me how to make quick buck. We have no time to wait for years”. I was shocked with his remarks. But I had to come to terms that this is the general attitude of our stakeholders.

This is the main factor that pulls us down from becoming a leader in this field. We do not want to be innovative, spent time and effort to develop products and services. We look for shortcuts. However, we must realise that shortcuts bring quick money from products that have no long-term value. For example, all our herbal tea and coffee.

What we need are long-term plans, perseverance and continuity; identify priority areas, and good business plans. We must realise that MNCs that are today’s leaders in the industry were not developed overnight. It took decades for them to reach the status they enjoy today.
One good example I could quote is our biofuel industry. Why do only hear about palm oil as the feedstock? This is mainly because its cultivation, propagation, and downstream processes are well studied and are at the optimum level.

However, there are other issues – high price of Crude Palm Oil (CPO), the food vs fuel competition, the suitability of palm oil at different temperatures as biofuel, and the economy viability. Even before one studies the scientific aspect, the economics do not support palm oil as a feedstock to produce biofuel. The main purpose of developing biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuel is because of the high price of the latter. Thus, it does not make sense to produce a fuel that is more expensive than what is in use now. The problem with the Malaysian mindset is, we are not ready to think out of the box and are not prepared to invest time, effort and money into research. We want to commercialise overnight with the least amount of resources. So, palm oil looks exciting.

There are various feedstock that could be developed into biofuel. It might take time but the rewards are there. Malaysia is rich in agricultural waste which pose huge environmental problems. This could be turned into biofuel. The other option is Jatropha, a hardy plant that can thrive in marginalised land.

There will certainly be teething problems before innovative products could be commercialised but that is all about research. All the products produced from multinational companies that fetch billions of dollars in the market were not developed overnight. How many patents do we hold in biotechnology and how many of these have been commercialised into really successful products? R&D is an inevitable step and process that we cannot avoid if we want to be a biotech player. Scientists, industry, and policy makers have to realise this. There is certainly no shortcut if we want to taste to sweetness of success.
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan