Biotech Event Draws Scientists, Protesters

BOSTON--More than 10,000 scientists, educators and businesspeople gathered last week for the largest biotechnology conference ever, while thousands of counter-demonstrators protested outside the Hynes Convention Center.

The BIO 2000 conference, sponsored by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), included panels on scientific and economic issues, corporate exhibits and speeches by actor Christopher Reeve and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56.

The conference ran from Sunday, March 26 through Thursday, March 30.

Participants in the conference said they gained valuable contacts and exposure.

"This is our first conference. We're trying to start moving ahead," said Martin Montoya, vice president of marketing at Organize-It, a software company with a booth at the conference.

But outside the hall, thousands of protesters opposed to the risks of biotechnology shouted threatening slogans during a rally on Sunday.

Protesters, who called their event "Biodevastation 2000," dressed as mutant vegetables, cloned monsters and monarch butterflies to demand a variety of restrictions on biotechnology, including an end to genetically modified organisms, ownership and patents over life forms and corporate control over individual consumption.

Estimates of the number of demonstrators ranged from 2,500 to 5,000.

The signs held by the protesters ranged from the straightforward ("stop biotech") to the witty ("resistance is fertile") to the political ("money for food, not corporation") to the amusing ("genetically modified frosted freaks") and even the profane ("buck fiotech").

Alyson C. Ewald, who came to Boston from Vermont for the conference, said she participated in the counter-demonstration because of her concern about the side effects of biotechnology.

"Like with nuclear power, it is dangerous to go with new technologies without considering the irreversible results," she said. "We have enough food to feed the whole world. It only depends on money and access to power. We need compassion and understanding, not new technology."

Protesters worried that genetic alterations in one species can affect neighboring plants and animals, like monarch butterflies they claim have been damaged by pollen from genetically modified corn.

"That's why so many people are dressed as butterflies," Ewald said.

But biotech advocates presented research to dismiss those claims.

C. S. Prakash, a participant in the conference, claimed in the Telegram and Gazette that field studies show the butterflies' exposure is too minimal to cause harm.

The protests brought curious visitors to the area.

Mark S. Seigel, a local physician, came to watch the demonstration.

"I'm pro-biotechnology," he said. "They've come up with so many medical advances, and so many more I think they'll come up with."

Seigel said he was very tolerant of the demonstration, even though he disagreed with the protesters.

"This is a great country, and it's excellent that they're allowed to protest," he said. "We definitely need to watch out whenever we're doing any science, but imagine if one of their grandparents were sick [and needed biotechnological help]."

Siegel credited police officers for the orderliness of the event.

"I wouldn't feel safe if the police weren't here," he said.

Police officers, who were too busy to make official comments, confirmed that there was no violence during Sunday's rally.

"The cops anticipated something large. The SWAT team is here as well as riot police. They're very, very prepared," said James L. Augusta, the shift supervisor for security at the convention center.

But compared to police fears, "it's quiet right now," he said.

Participants in the conference seemed similarly unfazed by the demonstrators.

"I would say it is not affecting the conference," said an information agent for BIO 2000. "People didn't know they were here."

Richard Braun, the CEO of a biotech company and a conference speaker, said the protests were "a peaceful way of showing one's concern," but said they did not affect his decision to attend the conference.

" I've seen enough of these [protests] at conferences in different countries," Braun said. "I'm personally convinced that biotech will be important. As with any new technology we must realize the limitations and come to a social agreement on how to use it."

Arriving at such an agreement was part of the goal of the conference, which included sessions on "New Directions in Biotechnology Education" and "Biotechnology and Environmental Health" among others.

Some Harvard affiliates participated, like Professor of Chemistry Gregory L. Verdine, who participated in a panel on biomedical research.

The corporate exhibit halls opened Monday night. Companies offered information and free gifts to participants strolling the booths.

A variety of companies sponsored booths. In addition to biotech firms, participants ranged from makers of laboratory equipment and pharmaceuticals to law firms and Internet ventures and even moving companies.

Next year's conference will be held in San Diego, Calif.