May 9, 2010

On the road yet again last week, attending the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meeting in Chicago. If you are not in this world (and I’m not) this is a very strange affair. 15,000 people come to the meeting. The cab driver who picks me up at Chicago Midway Airport asks me if I’m here for BIO (no one ever asks me this kind of question when the answer is “Yes”). The meeting itself is not like anything else I do. The “program” (i.e. the sessions where people give presentations or talks) is kind of an afterthought. The main thing is networking. Lots of the meeting is set up so that people who work in one part of the industry (say, making supplies for a certain kind of scientific procedure or test that might be used in manufacturing a biotechnology product) hook up with people from another part of the industry (say, people who have a genetically engineered drug they are trying to scale up for clinical trials). The “Bio Exposition” is amazing. Thousands of square feet of convention space set up with these elaborate trade-show pavilions that you set up then take down for the next meeting. People hang around these little pavilions touting their particular angle. Most of them have little tables or comfy chairs where contacts can be made. Some represent regional initiatives to encourage industry, others are scientific companies. Even law firms are there. All of them are giving away various kinds of logo-bearing gifts.

My personal quest in the Exposition is to pick enough notepads to last Diane at least through to November. Since she goes through between five and fifteen little notes to herself and others every day, this is no mean feat, but actually the Bio Exposition makes it pretty easy. I wander through the displays on the lookout for whatever it is that they happen to be giving away. Lots of gewgaws having no apparent purpose, which I ignore. Everybody has a pen, which I also ignore. Some useful things like letter openers or pedometers, but how many of these do you need? Some are giving away bags that you can fill up with this swag. I’m resisting that, too. But I’m grabbing notepads, which are not as much in evidence as one might think. In the end I come out with plenty, most of which have meaningless scientific logos. There are two really good ones, though, and Diane’s friends should be on the lookout for getting notes from her that have these logos. One of them reads “World’s Largest Supplier of Transgenic Rats”. That’s clearly something to be proud of. Another says “Go Mad”. It’s from Madrid, Spain.

Along the way I pick up occasional consumables: a bag of popcorn from Kansas pavilion, a latte from Abbott Laboratories, and some Georgia peanuts. That last item also comes with a revelation for me. The night before, I had attended the opening reception for the meeting, which was a pretty lavish spread laid out at the Field Museum. Lots of hor d’ourves with a vaguely middle-eastern feel (grilled fish on pita, spicy corn relish, baklava, falafel). They are served in décor that looks like the interior of a harem tent (or so I imagine, not ever having actually been in a harem tent): translucent curtains, plush hassocks and plenty of rattan. Sydney Greenstreet could be sitting there. We are greeted by a couple in costumed in garish silks and wearing brightly colored head scarves. They have a vaguely pirate look, and all around are banners that say “Hosted by GeorgiaBio ”. Given the costumes and the themes, we are thinking, former Soviet Republic of Georgia. One of my colleagues remarks, “I thought we were bailing them out. How can they afford something like this?” There is however, an identical logo at the Exposition display where I am picking up my Georgia peanuts the next day. As you may recall, Diane’s family pays taxes in Georgia. I wonder how well our money is spent by these gestures intended to lure the biotech industry to the state, especially when attendees think they are being wooed to Eastern Europe. Maybe they were pirates, after all.

I am there in Chicago, of course, to give a brief talk on ethics. It’s confined to the “program,” which is tucked safely away on the top floor of the McCormick Center (though I must say, my talk was amazingly well-attended, especially given that it happened between 8 and 9 am on the first official day of the meeting). Strolling around the Exhibition later in the day, I’m mostly ignored as I grab free notepads and the occasional USB drive. But every now and then someone from one of the state pavilions (yes, there was a Michigan pavilion) engages me in conversation, hopeful that I am a scientist or even better an entrepreneur who might like to take my biotech start-up business to their area. You should see the absolutely stunned look on their faces when I tell them that I am an ethicist who works on food and farming. They have absolutely no comeback for this. It’s out of their universe entirely. Perhaps I would have done better to identify myself as a pirate.


Paul Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University