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.