Boston: Where the Biomed Industry Comes to Play.

My fair city is currently playing host to the biomedical industry’s biggest bash of the year, leaving us up to our ears in scientists, lawyers, pharmaceutical reps, accountants, and any corporate type who rakes in the dough by researching areas of medicine such as stem cell or gene therapy. It’s been sold to the rest of us Bostonians as “the DNC, but without all the big names.” Well, I think we got Michael J. Fox, but unlike John Kerry, he’s very small and difficult to spot in a crowd.

Like the DNC, this big conference has brought with it a positive crap-load of protesters. The biggest organization in charge of General Shouting and Angry Puppet Shows is BioJustice 2007, a group that attempted to organize a mass protest using the wonders of the Interweb. Sadly (for them), the number of warm bodies who showed up here was drastically lower than the web buzz suggested. According to the Boston Globe, the group’s parade to protest the construction of a biomed lab in a poor neighborhood rolled, danced, and sang through empty streets while slightly baffled residents peered through the blinds and shrugged.

The parade was the largest of an entire week of protests planned by BioJustice and others, like animal rights groups. I found it difficult to figure out what, exactly, they were all protesting against, and what they hoped to accomplish. Eventually I figured out that there were a myriad of complex issues, all of which were tied together under a generic banner of yelling at the collected faceless corporations that make up the biomedical industry.

Most of the signs and slogans seem to focus on the evil of successful businesses (i.e., big pharma or faceless corporations) without really flagging the evidence that the companies at the conference were participating in unethical activities or offering any solutions.

Surfing the web sites of protesters, I found a lot of distrust of the ongoing research such as with stem cells — in a recent article on their site, BioJustice claims to support stem cell research though “not at the expense of research on basic public & environmental health or on preventive medicine.” I’m not sure what that means — what company or governmental organization is funding stem cell research with money that is or should be earmarked for other programs? What other programs would be better helped with that money? How much money should stem cell research receive? The site claims, “Stem cells may hold cures for some illnesses, but at best these are a long way off.” How fitting, then, that this would be the week researchers announce a major breakthrough in treating blood vessels using stem cells.

Other issues the protesters are shouting about include animal rights and the aforementioned biomedical laboratory in Roxbury. Again, complex issues are simplified and sometimes bastardized to fit on banners and signs. At their best, the protesters are highlighting important guidelines for safety and ethics the industry must keep at the forefront as progress is made. At their worst, they are insulting the intelligence of the people they’re trying to reach, spreading misinformation and unfounded fear, and hampering scientific progress.

As much as I enjoy a good (peaceful) protest, in a case like this I’d prefer a real discussion. They can still wear their giant cardboard carrot suits if necessary.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Eventually I figured out that there were a myriad of complex issues, all of which were tied together under a generic banner of yelling at the collected faceless corporations that make up the biomedical industry.

    Seems to be a common problem. Occasionally, on my way to work, I pass by a couple of protesters who hold up a banner saying, "SHAME ON BOSTON PROPERTIES." (Who own Cambridge Center, where I work.) That's nice, and all, but despite having seen these people somewhat frequently over the past few months, I still have no idea what Boston Properties is supposed to be ashamed of. Maybe there is some legitimate grievance there, but I'm not hearing it from these guys with the banner.

    Since I was still at BU when the biolab was first announced, I got quite an earful about it. Half my Facebook friends joined "My school has a level 4 biolab and yours doesn't", a protest-parody of the "My school has a lazy river and yours doesn't" group. I still don't get what the big deal is.

    Where do they propose we do this vitally important research on the world's most deadly infectious diseases? The Moon? Hey, I'm all for the Moon, but that's not the most practical of suggestions, is it? Given that the Moon is out of reach for biomedical researchers for at least the next decade, what's the alternative? Don't do the research? Boy, will our faces be red when Ebola mutates to become airborne and kills us all and we have no idea what to do about it because a bunch of NIMBYs got a little tweaked. Seriously, what's the alternative, other than simply not doing the research?

    These things have to be built in someone's backyard. Sorry to break it to you folks, but that's how it goes. Why not build it in Roxbury? The fancypants biomed dudes will have to live somewhere once the lab's there. Maybe they'll settle in Roxbury and inject some cash into a poor neighbourhood? Or at least stop around there for lunch?

    It's not like there aren't safeguards in place. When's the last time people died from having a laboratory in their neighbourhood? Certainly, the entirety of Cambridge seems to still be alive and healthy, despite the fact that there are research labs out the wazoo around here.

  2. I've been irritated at protests for quite a while, and I think the reason why has just bubbled to the conscious level of my brain: a protest is an appeal by volume, or by popularity, or occasionally by brute force. "If we get out there and show them that we're against this, they will have to stop!"

    It's extremely frustrating to me that this seems to be the most effective a citizen with neither wealth nor power can be. Is there no way to legislate through objective reason, instead of mass appeal? Democracy seems broken to me… but every feasible alternative seems equally broken.

    I fall back on the bard. Well, a bard :p "You say you've got a real solution… well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan."

  3. I think this post by Sara Robinson explains a lot about why I've usually felt that protests are ineffective. I think protesters, frankly, don't really know why they're hitting the streets in most cases.

    A lot of the modern protest movement feels like somebody throwing a "60s Party". Everybody goes out and has a good time, but it's really just a stereotype, a caricature, a vaguely-remembered "This is how this worked, right?"

    The fact is that protests aren't shocking any longer. The main advantage to protests back in the 60s was that they got a lot of attention. People talked about them for days afterward, all across the country. Nowadays? You're lucky if you get a 30 second spot on local news. Even Fred Phelps is old hat by now, and people just tune out all the noise. Maybe it isn't fair to paint all protesters with such a broad brush, but there you have it.

    It seems that one of the most effective tools of the past few years has been letter-writing campaigns. We had a number of very high-profile cases of letter campaigns having a real effect. Don Imus, Girls Gone Wild, and KSFO vs. Spocko stand out for this. If enough people care about an issue and are willing to write letters explaining why they care and what they want done about it, people listen. Especially corporations and Congressmen, because their job security depends on people not being pissed off at them.

    The key being that the the target of the campaign needs to know:

    Why people care

    andWhat people want done about it

    Protests of the classic 60s mass-demonstration style are fantastically bad at communicating those two things, which is why they're nigh-on useless. The medium here doesn't really matter. You could do letters to a decision maker, letters to the editor in a well-read paper, direct lobbying (if you're an organisation with funding), print/TV ads, etc. Whatever you do, though, those two things are really important, and I think they get either ignored or lost in a large-scale protest.

  4. "I found it difficult to figure out what, exactly, they were all protesting against, and what they hoped to accomplish."

    This, of course, assuming they have something more specific in mind than "the biomed industry is inherently evil and we don't like it". In my experience, the type of people go to these sort of things don't actually have any solutions in mind. They just feel the need to complain.


  5. the BIO annual meeting was in Chicago last year, and I took a bus of students to see the exhibits/talk to companies.

    Watching the reaction of the international students to the protesters was really interesting! (especially during the pouring of blood parts.)

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