In biotech, company creation is usually preceded by scientific discoveries presenting solutions to existing problems. Because of this, early stage VC investment is, at its core, a science-driven activity. However, scientific innovation is not always applauded by all ranks of society. There is a growing anti-science sentiment among certain societal groups, opposing or denying the likes of climate change, evolution, vaccines, and GM crops. As investors, VC firms must take into account not only the scientific validity of the technology they support, but also multiple other factors. Do anti-science sentiments affect decision making in the field of biotech investments?
Who are these anti-scientists?
Anti-science is not a new concept; it is a position that has been around ever since the scientific method was first described. At its core, it is a rejection of the scientific method on the basis that it is untrustworthy, due to constant revisiting over time, and that the world is too complex to be grasped by human reason. Anti-science is not about rebutting areas of scientific uncertainty, but rather about intentionally excluding science-based arguments in favor of irrational or sometimes fictitious ones. This being said, most anti-scientists are not anti-science across the board: they tend to be selective in their beliefs.
Anti-science sentiments are often a shield used to counter an idea that undermines someone’s pre-conceived and deep-seated beliefs. For instance, a person who feels that all-natural things are pure and benign may be more likely than the average person to oppose genetic modification. Nonetheless, that same person might well despise climate change negationists for dismissing overwhelming scientific evidence on global warming. Although anti-scientists are often quite isolated, there are cases where particular movements have gained enough momentum to influence popular opinion and even legislation. Because of this, anti-science beliefs cannot be taken lightly.
VCs must remain vigilant for irrational anti-science positions and contribute to the public debate wherever possible. - Willem Broekaert, V-Bio Ventures
Anti-science in action
In the life sciences, there are two current topics particularly susceptible to anti-science sentiments. The first is the topic of vaccinations, where there is a small yet growing group of people refusing to be vaccinated or to have their children vaccinated. 'Anti-vaxxers' are a mixed group driven by diverse motives, ranging from religious convictions to a distrust for ‘unnatural’ substances over pharma industry conspiracy beliefs, but their influence has resulted in serious societal impacts and even political influence.
The current Italian populist government has, for example, recently suspended a law that made it obligatory to vaccinate children against common infectious diseases. A few decades ago, measles had been largely eliminated in the US. Then, just last year, there were 58 confirmed cases of measles in Minnesota; the largest outbreak the state had seen in 30 years. This disease resurgence can, according to researchers, be directly attributed to people who were not vaccinated. In the US, like in several other regions in the world, vaccination rates have been declining as a direct result of the anti-vax movement. As the success of a vaccination campaign depends on treating at least 95% of the target population to achieve so-called herd immunity, this means anti-science sentiments are threatening us all.
VCs must act responsibly with respect to invested money and cannot totally ignore regulatory roadblocks or societal acceptance issues, which may lead them occasionally to put the brake on. - Willem Broekaert, V-Bio Ventures
Another example of a popular anti-science topic is genetic modification, particularly in relation to GM crops. It is widely acknowledged that GM crops have an impeccable safety record. Nonetheless, in Europe, anti-scientists seem to have successfully influenced public opinion, politicians and regulatory bodies into upholding strict GM regulations. The EU legislation on GM is so stringent that only one GM crop, a type of insect-resistant maize, is currently being grown in Europe. The only way forward is now for a completely new tailored legislation to be drawn up. This will however, at best, take years of time and effort, potentially leading investors to take a more conservative stance when faced with funding a company based on GM technology.
For more on crispr crops, read this BioVox article on GM regulations in the EU.
The impact on VC decisions
So do anti-science positions have an impact on VC investment decisions? The answer varies, depending on the topic in question. In the context of the vaccine example, the anti-vaxxer campaigns have so far had very little impact on the amount of VC money invested in the development of new vaccines. Despite the misinformation spread by anti-vaxxers, most individuals remain convinced of vaccination benefits. With few exceptions, most politicians, regulators and healthcare organizations have been putting the efficacy data first. We must however remain watchful. The situation is unfortunately very different for genetic modification in plants. The recent ruling in Europe with respect to gene edited crops, putting them on the same regulatory footing as GM crops, is likely to significantly turn the European VC tap for new investments in this area. For situations such as this, VCs do exhibit some necessary precaution when considering their investments.
Willem Broekaert, managing partner at V-Bio Ventures, concludes: “As a vital part of society, VCs must remain vigilant for irrational anti-science positions and contribute to the public debate wherever possible. On the other hand, VCs must act responsibly with respect to invested money and cannot totally ignore regulatory roadblocks or societal acceptance issues, which may lead them occasionally to put the brake on. However, we believe that these cases should remain highly exceptional and open for revisiting in due course.“