SAN FRANCISCO - Looking to shed the shroud of biotechnology sometimes perceived by the general public, companies and trade organizations are supporting outreach programs to boost the industry's image.

Members of a panel discussion Wednesday at the BIO 2004 convention focused their attention on mainstream misconceptions about biotech, as well as solutions for such problems. They all encouraged educational partnerships and other programs to promote the industry, which garnered a measure of sensational protest at this week's event. (See BioWorld Today, June 9, 2004.)

"We want to broaden this topic, because we really want to make sure that everybody who is a voter, a consumer and out there in the real world, all have a comfort level with biotech," said Elliott Hillback, senior vice president of corporate affairs at Genzyme Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. "They don't all have to love us, although it would be nice if they did. But they have to respect us, think about it in an honest way, and be willing with us to have an honest dialogue."

While public relations strategies may be common to many biotech companies in dealing with skeptics or investors, those firms also work to encourage future generations of scientific researchers and business leaders at all levels of schooling. For example, Genentech Inc. fosters a variety of programs geared toward students and teachers.

"Public-private partnerships will support a higher quality of science education," said Mary Stutts, the senior director and head of corporate relations at the South San Francisco firm. "Companies are the catalysts behind improving science education. And research demonstrates that children must be inspired by the third grade if they're going to have a lasting interest in science. For us at Genentech, we're looking at science education programs from kindergarten all the way to post-doc."

She noted that any educational outreach works best through entire school systems at city or county levels. To that end, Genentech promotes programs through which its employees speak to classes and schools.

Another Bay Area company, Sangamo Biosciences Inc., encourages its employees to participate in local science fairs. The Richmond, Calif.-based business also holds fund-raising events through which it donates money to an elementary school technology program and a homeless shelter.

"I think the better people are informed about [biotech], the better the debate will be," said Edward Lanphier, the company's president and CEO, and a former high school teacher.

Cora Beth Abel, the director of education for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, also stressed the importance of supporting scientific education at all levels. In addition to its role as a local trade organization, her organization has worked to provide input on the state's science curriculum, and also holds fund-raising events through which it donates research equipment to schools.

Sangamo is the national sponsor of the BioGENEius competition, a program that awards high school scientists with research in biotechnology. The competition, which awards its winners at the BIO meeting each year, is run by the Biotechnology Institute in Alexandria, Va.

An educational outreach arm that was spun out of BIO, the organization operates on a national level to promote the industry through various vehicles. In addition to BioGENEius, it distributes a magazine to more than 100,000 schools and teachers, reaches out to teachers on an individual basis and has developed a minority fellows program, among other activities.

"We have to develop a fundamental understanding," said Kathy Frame, the Biotechnology Institute's director of educational programs. "We can't be afraid of what biotechnology is. It is our future, and we have to be able to communicate that."