TCS Daily


Heartland Heartburn

By Greg Blankenship - November 11, 2002 12:00 AM

Illinois is not known as a hot bed of bio-technology. When one thinks of Illinois, images of Lincoln and the prairie or of Wrigley Field and Buckingham Fountain will come to the fore long before lab coats and microscopes. From a political perspective the Land of Lincoln's reputation is considered to be less than wholesome - to put it mildly. Voting in Chicago is just the most vivid example.

Yet there is more to Illinois than corn and corruption. Chicago alone is home to some 58,000 biotech and pharmaceutical employees - more than any other metropolitan area save Boston. Illinois can also boast of being home to leading research and development centers such as Argonne National Laboratory, The National Center for Food Safety, The National Soybean Lab and the National Center for Supercomputing and Applications.

Despite this, Illinois has long been considered a backwater in the technology arena as a whole. Highly regarded as a producer of research and development, Illinois has traditionally exported its good ideas and PhD's. For example, Marc Andreesen, who invented the web browser at the University of Illinois, promptly picked up and moved to California to develop Netscape. This example has become legend in Illinois tech circles as all too illustrative of the state's poor business climate.

Illinois officials and business leaders have made a concerted effort to improve the state's biotech business climate over the last decade. And that effort has met with some success. In recent years, firms such as ZuChem, Arryx, Advance Life Sciences, Ovation Life Sciences, Nanosphere and Neo Pharm have begun to develop expensive and complex biotech and nanotechnologies that someday promise to save millions of lives by attacking a host of cancers and neurological disorders. However, as complex as these technologies are, they still remain very vulnerable to two simple human foibles: envy and fear.

Envy

In her acceptance speech on election night, Attorney General elect Lisa Madigan (D-Chicago) practically leapt out of her shoes in a fervent denunciation of price gouging pharmaceutical companies (employing 58,000 of her constituents) and she vowed to bring them down. Somewhere, somehow, somebody might be making a profit. This will not stand under the new Illinois regime. Not to be left out, Governor-elect Rod Blagojevich (D-Chicago) promises to take on the pharmaceutical industry as well.

Having been shut out of the governorship for twenty-six years, Illinois Democrats, who now control all branches of the state government, are all too eager to shake down the drug industry. In their zeal to punish innovation and success, these policymakers have the potential to do much harm to indigenous biotech and pharmaceutical companies by squashing innovation and eliminating well paying jobs.

Fear

Outside the state, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) recently decided on voluntary measures designed to address the "fear" that genetically modified crops may taint the food supply.

These industry backed measures would separate genetically modified crops from those dedicated to the food supply through a moratorium on certain kinds of crops in the nation's bread basket. For example, genetically modified corn planted for the purposes producing new drugs would not be planted in the Midwestern corn belt states. Instead, R&D facilities would develop in such states as Arizona or Hawaii where corn is not generally grown. This policy has the effect of exporting pharmaceutical and biotech R&D out of Illinois, thus undermining the state's decade-long efforts.

BIO's proposed moratorium is based on fear, not science. BIO fears a public relations nightmare similar to the much publicized Star Link incident. In response BIO has surrendered to unfounded fears that: a) cross pollination cannot be prevented; and b) genetically modified crops could taint the food supply. There is no scientific evidence to support either scenario, and BIO admits as much. BIO's moratorium decision sets a bad precedent and yields the moral high ground to those bent on banning genetically modified crops. Give an inch in this debate and the bioluddites both in and out of government will take a mile.

Envy of profit and irrational fear are combining both outside and inside of Illinois to hinder new, life saving technologies. There is little to be done about Illinois' sorry state politics. That will have to wait until the next election. But BIO's moratorium is a policy that can and should be abandoned. As last week's election results demonstrate, Illinois is perfectly capable of economic self-immolation on its own. Our state is not in need of an outside industry organization's good intentions to do it for us.

Greg Blankenship is director of the Illinois Policy Institute based in Springfield, Illinois.
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