RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C.--Vice-president Al Gore'spoint man for biotechnology, his domestic policy adviser, GregSimon, told the Seventh International Biotechnology Meetingand Exhibition, "I don't think there's ever been anybody in theWhite House who knows the details of biotechnology as well asAl Gore does."
He added, "I don't think there's ever been a president ascommitted to the future of science and technology as BillClinton."
He addressed an industry audience of 652 on Thursday in a180-foot white circus tent pitched behind the conference hotel.
Recognizing that biotechnology is "one of the foremostproducers of products most salable in the 21st century, thepresident designated the vice president as head of histechnology initiative." Gore, in turn, "enlisted Jack Gibbons, thepresident's science adviser, to put together some liaison ofevery cabinet department and agency, to address a variety ofissues in science and technology. This group held its firstmeeting this week.
Issue No. 1: Capital Formation
"In principle," Simon said, "the number one issue ofbiotechnology is capital formation. All other issues trail behindit." He added ruefully, "It is also one of the most difficult forthe government to address, especially in the current situation-- high deficits, and the need for higher revenues."
Recalling that both Clinton and Gore have long supported"targeted capital gain reduction for long-term investment forsmall businesses," Simon noted that "the debate rages as to howsmall?
"Each industry has its unique capital needs," he said. "Under theTreasury proposal put out in association with the State of theUnion message, the target capital gains break is aimed atcompanies up to $50 million, for stock held five years at aminimum." Plus a 50 percent write-off, which yields aneffective rate of 50 percent.
"I realize," Simon said, "that it is below the level of what manyof you would have argued for in terms of size of company.These issues will obviously be the subject of negotiations onCapitol Hill."
Pleading "the need to balance capital formation for thisindustry with economic growth for all of America's industries,"Simon solicited his listeners' "help and comments," assuringthem that "we have open ears, minds and doors."
Public Debate on Products
Gore's spokesman then said solemnly, "Let me turn for just amoment to a more profound question: How are we going to getthose genetically engineered little piggies to market before theBST (bovine somatotropin) cows come home?" He continued:"We have an open window of opportunity to set the contactsfor the 1990s debate on the marketing of biotechnologyproducts.
"If we address the regulatory questions on the marketing ofbiotechnology products, based on single highly controversialproducts one at a time, we are going to engage the public in thewrong debate, when it should be about the broad principles weare going to pursue in the marketing of all kinds of products.Not just the FlavrSavr tomato, and not just BST milk, butproducts that deal with all sorts of bioremediation, agriculturalcrop plants, and herbicide-resistant plants, and biologicalpesticides.
"This is an opportunity to leave the debate of the 1980s, andstart a dialog of the 1990s," he said.
"This confrontation of the industry and its critics, with thegovernment in the middle, and in fact the process by whichprevious administrations dealt with regulations, caused somany bruises in the regulatory agencies, and the industry andinterest groups, about where to go, with whom to speak, andwhat would be the effective point of contact.
"It is important that we start talking with the people withwhom we disagree directly, rather than through the WhiteHouse or the Congress. I think that this administration willoffer a forum for biotechnology and its critics to reach someconsensus on how we can benefit our society withbiotechnology products in a way that recognizes the greatpromise of this industry, and also recognizes the investmentthat every family has in the safety of its food, of its fields, andits uncertainty about the future.
"This industry is well-equipped to address those uncertainties.We welcome you to join us in this discussion, so we can start 10years from now looking back and say that the 1990s were thebeginning of the successful introduction of biotechnology andits products in the U.S., and from the U.S. throughout theworld."
No Short Answer
Following up on these closing words on Simon's speech,BioWorld asked him what emergency means, pendingformation of the forum he foresees to replace confrontation,can industry take to protect itself from such activist actions asthe impending anti-BST boycott of MacDonald's by JeremyRifkin's Pure Food Campaign.
"I don't want to be in the business of giving industry specificadvice on how to market a specific product," Simon replied. Headded that "a basic principle has to be public education as wellas some level -- yet to be decided -- of public informationabout products. That does not mean labeling all geneticallyengineered foods."
He emphasized that "this administration is not going tointerfere with FDA's determination of food safety; that's FDA'srole. Also, we're not going to ask FDA to make economic andsocial impact analyses; that's not its role."
Queried as to what avenue the ABC, IBA and their successortrade association, BIO, might pursue to enlist government inputinto the problem, Simon recommended it address Gibbons, thepresident's Science Adviser, but reiterated, "The tradeassociations need to deal directly with the people they disagreewith, rather than through the government."
Pressed by BioWorld to consider the plight of companiessuffering from clear and present cash burn-out while activistsstymie products, Simon said: "That, I don't have a short answerto."
-- David N. Leff Science Editor
(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.