The ethos that disease could be publicly proclaimed a market opportunity was anathema to those who championed the ideology that government, not the private sector, is ultimately responsible for the health of the nation. It initiated crises in universities, pharmaceutical organizations, and in the theatre for public assessment of technology. The culture of the university at first resisted the intrusion of private money into molecular research, and the very notion of a technology transfer office challenged the ideals of university-based science.
For pharmaceutical organizations, the patent-protected medicine cupboard was emptying and they looked to the biotechs for a fix. Not many understood how to integrate the new paradigm for making medicine into their team’s consciousness.
In the public domain, fears of contagion required attention as public distrust of science escalated from the nuclear scares of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the toxic sludge of Love Canal unmasked the hubris of better living through chemistry.
In crisis, identities are formed as alliances are sought, positions are established, and ambitions are declared. Much of this is on display in cultural performances—trade shows, road shows, the traveling “beauty pageants” of influential scientists and investment bankers, speeches by leaders, names, logos, and marketing images.
The performance part of crisis is revealed, for example, in appeals to biblical and mythological images and in the rhetoric of science and industry “stars.” Perhaps the most repeatedly quoted mythical reference to the power of biogenetic engineering was Nobel laureate Walter Gilbert’s comment reported in Science that, “The total human sequence is the grail of human genetics.”
Ron Cape, the founder of Cetus, captured for his audiences the simultaneity of the sacred and the profane when he regularly introduced biotechnology as a conflation of “genetics, genesis, genitals, and money!” This unnatural arrangement is a rhetorical aphorism, a terse truth bringing together what sentiment might wish to keep apart. Science harnessed DNA (the master transformer), and business declared its ambition to deliver salvation from disease and suffering.
Scientific journals and magazines commonly displayed on their covers chimera and mythic-like images for their narratives of biotechnology. Biotech firms adopted New Age names such as Millennium, Shaman, Isis, and Sphinx. Sequana is named after a Celtic Goddess. A landscape of magic and fantasy became part of the performance ritual for presenting biotechnology to the public. Even as biotech founders were wringing their hands over how their public image would suffer from the release of “Jurassic Park,” biotech suppliers added carnivorous dinosaurs and Frankenstein golems to the cows, sheep, and mice used in biotechnology advertising. Why? Monsters and medicine have a long history of association.
Babylonian chimerical monsters of disease look like the angry dinosaurs mentioned earlier. Cross-culturally and throughout time there is a moral ambivalence that pervades the relationship between healer and patient. Deeply rooted cultural-emotional baggage is called out for contemporary reference.
Fusing the mysteries of religion and mythology with the mysteries of science is to plead for special status because the “gods” can provide extraordinary gifts. The language and images are ideological markers crafted by those elite who draw upon heritage and tradition to turn the extraordinary into the ordinary.
The investment response to biotechnology was not surprising since the only sector that kept growing while everything else rusted in the 1980s was the pharmaceutical business. Pharmaceuticals were recession proof. The venture capital financial subculture and its offspring, computer millionaires, became angels to aspiring drug companies. They delivered cash, prestige, and legitimacy to their molecular biology friends and relatives. Networks are short among the knowledge class.