BOSTON Carl Feldbaum, president of the BiotechnologyIndustry Organization (BIO), recently spent several hours on aSaturday behind a one-way glass, watching and listening as 12citizens talked candidly about biotechnology.It was the first in a series of focus groups that BIO issponsoring around the U.S. Within the next six weeks, he toldthe Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's annual meetinghere on Thursday, other such sessions, involving participantsat a range of demographic levels, will take place in Boston,Kansas City, Mo., and San Jose, Calif.This initial session, said Feldbaum, was held "inside theWashington, D.C. Beltway," in Fairfax, Va. He described thefocus group as "a dozen highly educated people, who inpollster jargon terms would be classified as 'opinion leaders.'"They were people who watch the news every night, who readthe editorial pages, who have written letters to members ofCongress, a few who have contributed to political campaigns.Highly educated, highly trained, politically active."The group offered some strong observations, several of whichFeldbaum enumerated:"We cannot underestimate their concern about ethics, andwhere our technology is moving. They said that while theyhave no doubt biotechnology will become an increasinglypositive factor of life, they wanted to know, up front ifpossible, what kinds of ethical decisions would have to bemade, and who we thought should make them."Those highly educated folks, some of whom had graduatedegrees, talked about what they called, 'the mysteries' ofbiotechnology, and they admitted to an almost total ignoranceas to what it was. They very much wanted to know about us,and to believe in us. That's the good news."But they wanted a definition of biotechnology that wascredible, in that it acknowledged the unknown, and showedsome concern about where we're heading. They were put offby definitions or descriptions of biotechnology that carriedany whiff of exaggeration, even any whiff of exaggeratedhope."Fieldbaum also said, "In terms of how we are definingourselves, members of the focus group said that speakinggenerally about cures and treatments for intractable ordangerous diseases, speaking generally about more abundantnutritious crops, about hunger around the world, was notgood."We live in a moment when intelligent people are especiallysuspicious of industry, of government and of the media. Weneed to find ways to cut through the complex of suspicion andmistrust. It will not be easy, but essentially we have to do it."We have the best story to tell of any industry, virtually ever.What BIO is doing by conducting this series of focus groups isreally to learn from public perceptions of biotechnology howbest to tell this story," he said.
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