LONDON - In a speech to European CEOs and investors, Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged his support for UK biotechnology, saying "its implications are profound, its potential benefits massive." He also criticized anti-GM and animal experimentation protestors as "substituting aggression for argument."

Blair called biotechnology "science's new frontier," adding, however, that as yet there is "little wider public understanding of [its] revolutionary potential," leaving the field open to groups of protestors to turn the public against biotechnology.

Speaking to the Bioindustry Association European CEO and investor conference last Friday in London, Blair said the UK is in danger of becoming "antiscience," adding, "I would like to see a far more considered, rational dialogue between the scientific community and the public."

Blair's most proscience speech since he came to office in May 1997 will be followed up today when he briefs journalists on the distribution of the science budget, a task normally handled by the minister for science, Lord Sainsbury.

The government will protect the ability of science to pursue its research, grow and prosper in Britain. Blair said he supports research, even in controversial areas such as genetically modified crops and embryonic stem cells. "On the edge of each new frontier of scientific discovery, there is usually a body of opinion that sees it as a threat. We are at such a frontier now."

He added, "As always, there are those who say that aspects of that scientific inquiry are innately undesirable and should stop. The response should be to say, "Let science discover the facts; let us then make our judgment. But do not put judgment ahead of the facts."

This principle should apply in all areas, Blair said, even in ones as difficult as GM crops. "I have an open mind on GM. There are legitimate concerns. But to make heroes of people who are preventing basic scientific research taking place is wrong. This government will not tolerate blackmail, even physical assault by those who oppose it."

Blair noted that in complex areas such as stem cell research, there is more than one morally acceptable outcome. "Some people are opposed in principle to all forms of embryo research on ethical grounds. But we must also recognize that when stem cell research has huge potential to improve the lives of those suffering from diseases, there also are strong ethical arguments in favor."

Blair said he does not intend the UK to lose its dominant position in the European biotech sector. "Biotechnology is the next wave of the knowledge economy, and I want Britain to become its European hub."

While the German biotechnology sector is growing fast, he said the UK remains in the lead, with three-quarters of the biotech drugs that are in late-stage trials in Europe, and dominant companies such as Celltech plc. "I want to make it clear: We don't intend to let our leadership fall behind and are prepared to back that commitment with investment." He said the UK will take a lead in Europe in setting the standards that govern biotechnology.

Blair also rejected the idea that the National Health Service will not be able to afford biotech drugs, saying they offered, "The chance to eliminate degenerative diseases that currently cost the NHS hundreds of millions in long-term care and to cut down on waste by targeting drugs more effectively."