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PR for the 'Book of Life' | The Nation

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PR for the 'Book of Life'

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Scientists as well as financial analysts caution that gene therapies may never come to fruition. If they do, Dr. Muin Khoury, director of the Office of Genetics and Disease Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control, believes they will be useful only for a handful of rare diseases. A Motley Fool financial columnist tells millions of readers, "There's no reason why the average investor should be invested in biotechnology companies. None."

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Jacqueline Stevens
Jacqueline Stevens is a professor in the political science department at Northwestern University. Her most recent book...

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Yet the American Museum of Natural History's "Genomic Revolution" recently announced: "By the year 2020 it is highly possible that the average human life span will be increased by 50 percent; gene therapy will make most common surgery of today obsolete; and we will be able to genetically enhance our capacity for memory."

Also out of step is "Paradise Now," a genetically themed art show in the midst of a national tour. Considering that today's biotechs are largely showing bottom lines more akin to failed dot-coms than the next Microsoft, glitzy and well-covered extravaganzas like "The Genomic Revolution" and "Paradise Now" seem like a gift to the bioindustry that money couldn't buy.

Or could it?

In an elaborate effort to insure that the genetic icon will not lose its luster, an international group of profit-minded and ideological biotech advocates has been pushing self-serving and, critics say, error-laden predictions in innocuous mainstream and even avant-garde exhibit halls, books and websites. Vital to the plan's success, according to its architects, is that the influence behind these productions remain hidden.

The strategy of idea laundering was first proposed by Burson-Marsteller, the world's largest public relations firm, in a 1997 memorandum written for EuropaBio--a consortium of pharmaceutical and food companies, including Genencorp, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Monsanto and Nestle--and obtained by Greenpeace. "In order to effect the desired changes in public perceptions and attitudes, the bioindustries must stop trying to be their own advocates," the memo reads. "That approach often works in the policy world. It quite demonstrably hasn't worked and won't work in the sphere of public perceptions." The memo, authenticated by a Burson-Marsteller spokesperson, urges bioindustries to advance their message by proliferating "symbols eliciting hope, satisfaction, caring and self-esteem"--just like those appearing in the art and museum shows.

One effort that appears to conform with those principles is now at the American Museum of Natural History. The major outside funder for "The Genomic Revolution" is the Lounsbery Foundation, headed by Dr. Frederick Seitz. "I was on the board of the museum for many years and said you need to have a good exhibit on DNA," he told me. The reason? "Enthusiasm for [genetic technologies] needed to be boosted a bit."

So accustomed to secrecy is the Lounsbery Foundation, which funds corporate-friendly science policy centers including the Atlantic Legal Foundation and the George C. Marshall Institute (another organization Seitz chairs), that its executive secretary, Marta Norman, expressed irritation that AMNH president Ellen Futter had not honored Norman's request for anonymity for "The Genomic Revolution" as, she said, Futter had done on past occasions. Norman told me, "I thought [the exhibit] was magnificent, except when I saw our name on the wall there." Seitz told me that the Lounsbery Foundation contributed about $500,000 for "The Genomic Revolution." Futter and director of media Anne Canty refused to reply to repeated requests for the exhibit's total budget or to discuss the museum's position on secrecy.

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