Biotech at UMBC

November 12, 1991

Thanks to decades of celluloid sci-fi, the very word "biotechnology" conjures up images of wild globs of protoplasm engulfing towns and killer viruses floating through the heating ducts. So it should come as no surprise that a community coalition in southwest Baltimore County has organized to fight UMBC's bid for the state's $22 million biotechnology center.

Project supporters point out that the center's work would focus on tapping into genetic codes of plants and animals to improve them -- not on creating new, Frankenstein-like organisms. As such, they argue, biotech research is environmentally safer than some existing industries, like steel and chemical manufacturing.

People in the communities around UMBC worry, however, that current regulations may be insufficient to guard against accidents, and they may be right. Now, unless federal money is involved, biotech research is virtually regulation-free. That is why state officials should establish safeguards and stringent monitoring procedures before work begins to assure residents that the center will pose no threat. That done, the project can move forward.

Biotechnology holds tremendous potential -- from social benefits like finding ways to fight AIDS and cancer to creating more nutritious fruits and vegetables, to economic benefits like new tax revenue and thousands of new jobs. Moreover, the Baltimore region is particularly well-suited to take advantage of the promise of biotechnology because of the confluence of Johns Hopkins medical institutions and the University of Maryland, as well its proximity to the National Institutes of Health. Certainly the fears surrounding this new endeavor must be addressed. But it would be foolish to allow them to derail this eminently sensible plan.

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