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May 1, 2012 (Vol. 32, No. 9)

Telling the Story of Biotechnology

Life Sciences Foundation Formed to Help People Understand Why Biotech History Matters

  • Biotechnologists are in the tomorrow business. They strive to innovate, invent, and make progress. They must; survival depends on it. Biotechnologists are future-oriented.

    Yet, biotechnologists are also steeped in history. They swim in the past and strive constantly to remember it. They must; survival depends on it. Biotechnologists are history-oriented.

    Dubious? Consider this. In order to innovate, bench scientists must review technical literatures—histories of discoveries. In order to protect intellectual properties, patent attorneys must reconstruct and document histories of inventions. In order to secure funding, manage crises, and devise effective strategies for the success of life science companies, biotech executives must draw on business lessons, skills, reputations, and networks of relationships acquired over time. History matters crucially to these people.

    In order to understand the present of the biotech industry and to plan for its future, participants are obliged to consider its past. The same is true for the general public, the press, and policy-makers. People can’t make good decisions about biotechnology if they don’t know its history.

  • The Mission of LSF

    The Life Sciences Foundation (LSF) has been established to help people understand. LSF documents, preserves, and disseminates the history of the field—it tells the biotech story. The nonprofit charity is headquartered in San Francisco. Regional chapters are in formation in Boston, San Diego, and other key centers of biotech research and development.

    The story of biotechnology is being told through website resources, oral histories with biotech pioneers, archive collections, educational outreach, and a book on the origins of the field.

    Industry leaders have recognized the pertinence and value of the project. Founding partners in LSF include Burrill & Company, Celgene, Eli Lilly & Co., Genentech, Genzyme, Merck, Millennium, Pfizer, Quintiles, and Thermo Fisher. Serving on the organization’s executive board are G. Steven Burrill, CEO of Burrill & Company; Joshua Boger, former chairman and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Dennis Gillings, chairman and CEO of Quintiles; John Lechleiter, chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly & Co.; Henri Termeer, former chairman and CEO of Genzyme; and Arnold Thackray, LSF president and CEO. Phillip Sharp, institute professor at MIT, serves as the organization’s academic advisor.

  • Making History

    LSF operates on the premise that history is a cultural force—but only if preserved and published. It is an asset that must be deployed. So far, the biotech industry has not made good use of it. “See for yourself,” says Arnold Thackray, LSF president and CEO, “Google ‘history of biotechnology.’ The results are fragmented, uneven, and rather paltry.” Thackray also points out, “If you don’t write your own history, somebody else will do it for you, and they may be hostile.”

    LSF advisory board co-chair Joshua Boger echoes these sentiments: “Biotechnology is one of the most important drivers of progress in our time, but people generally don’t know us. They know little about what we do. They don’t know the stories. We’re looking at huge deficits in public understanding.”

    Bits and pieces of the biotech story have surfaced, and some are captivating—The Billion Dollar Molecule by Barry Werth, a book about Boger’s company, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, is a fine example. But due to an overall paucity of popularizing accounts, the science remains imposing to lay audiences, and those who have made important contributions to the field remain mostly anonymous.

  • Informing the Public

    LSF is trying to help biotechnology enhance its public profile. Mark Jones, the foundation’s director of research, believes the life sciences have been neglected: “Ask people on the street who was responsible for their iPhone or iPad. They’ll tell you. Millions rushed to bookstores to purchase the Steve Jobs biography. Jobs was a fascinating character, and Apple makes wonderful products, but life scientists are trying to save lives, feed the world, and solve our pressing energy problems. There is plenty of compelling drama in biotech. We intend to put it on exhibition.”

    Jones explains that a big part of LSF’s mission is to “humanize” the biosciences. LSF intends to tell tales about people—scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, managers, executives, and financiers—the men and women who work to advance scientific knowledge, generate technological innovations, secure material prosperity, and improve lives around the world.

    These stories are full of color. They take place in laboratories and clinics, universities and research parks, pharmaceutical factories and chemical refineries, boardrooms and executive suites; on Sand Hill Road, Wall Street, Capitol Hill, and at the FDA; in the corn fields of Iowa, rice paddies in Asia, and African yam gardens; in the Gulf of Mexico, where genetically engineered microbes are cleaning up an oil spill, and the world’s oceans, where vast reserves of biodiversity are being mined for valuable goods. Biotech stories are set wherever processes of life have been used to transform and enhance the human condition.

    Arnold Thackray emphasizes that the message is for students, teachers, scholars, journalists, and policymakers. “There is a valuable heritage here. The life sciences will shape the course of the 21st century. We need to preserve their history. We need to teach young people about the world in which they live.”

    According to Thackray, the task is urgent; the biotech industry is still young, but the founding generation is already passing away: “Records are being scattered, memories are fading, stories are disappearing. Once lost, they’re gone forever.”

  • How You Can Help LSF to Achieve Its Mission

    You will enable LSF to record history and increase public understanding of science and technology by:

    • Spreading the word that it is time to capture the rich heritage of biotechnology,
    • Contacting the foundation with information on archives, historical records, and ancillary publications,
    • Suggesting candidates for the foundation’s oral history initiative (or developing a memoir of your own).

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