Dr. David S. Weir
Director, Delaware Biotechnology Institute
Dr. David S. Weir received his B.S. in chemistry and Ph.D. in chemical physics from the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. He lectured at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland before joining the DuPont Company in Wilmington, Delaware where his 35-year career included leadership positions in the business and scientific areas of the company’s polymer, fiber and agriculture businesses. As vice president for global research and development, he played a leadership role in developing DuPont’s worldwide capability in agriculture and plant science.
After retiring from Dupont, Dr. Weir became a director of Grupo Vicunha, a Brazilian conglomerate. In 1998, he was appointed to the staff of the University Delaware as director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, a partnership involving state government, academic institutions and the private sector.
As we develop the life sciences, it is critical that we have informed decisions and informed decision makers. There is a gap in the public understanding of the life sciences and issues surrounding them. The public understanding should begin with the terminology we use. At its most basic level, life sciences have to do with understanding the development of natural systems on a molecular level, and therefore how plants and animals develop and can be developed.
This work is an extension of the process that started centuries ago when a monk by the name of Mendel saw that there is something built into natural systems that causes certain characteristics to be passed on from generation to generation. What Mendel discovered was genes which direct the process of development. Biotechnology is taking that fundamental understanding and converting it into products or processes that improve the quality of our lives.
Discoveries in biotechnology are increasingly pervasive, affecting agriculture, human health and ecology. We can now clone animals — a development with implications not only for agriculture but also the resurrection of endangered species. Biotechnology is yielding new materials and diagnostic techniques. The capability will exist in the not-too-distant future for people to carry with them a chip containing their own personal genetic characteristics. Matching those characteristics with medicines specific to various genetic patterns will enable health care providers to employ an approach that is much more targeted than the broad-based treatment that in the health care field is the equivalent to what we in agriculture refer to as “spray and pray.”
A potential obstacle to this progress is a public perception that we in the life sciences don’t know what we’re doing….that somehow we are going to upset nature and damage life on our planet. Genetic modification of food has aroused this suspicion, particularly in Europe. The second issue is that we are going to contravene God’s laws. This involves the debate between ethics and religion. Three hundred and fifty years ago, Galileo had a problem with this and it took a long time for him to be redeemed.
The new biology allows us to do what nature has been doing forever. We are accelerating the process through genetic engineering. This is how we develop plants with disease resistance and superior nutritional capabilities. In addition to food, we are producing animals as sources of human organs to address the huge under-supply that exists.
At first glance, one might say, “Why not go full bore with these technologies?” But it isn’t that simple. There is huge resistance to this in Europe. French farmers don’t want their agriculture and market system upset by this productive new technology. There is also concern that we might produce so-called “frankenfoods” that could kill someone…..even though there is no recorded instance of this to date. And, there is a fear that genetic materials developed with the new science will invade the natural system.
We in the life sciences must heed these concerns. The Monsanto Company, which pioneered this technology, did not take these concerns seriously and biotech’s opponents prevailed in places like Europe. We lost valuable time and momentum as a result. Even so, biotech crops are spreading throughout the world, particularly in Asia. The only thing holding Asia back from further use of biotech crops is the fear of not being able to sell crops to Europe.
Recently, support of biotechnology has begun to come from environmental groups who perceive that crops require fewer pesticides. This dynamic is not unlike the nuclear power issue where fear is being overcome as environmentalists recognize that continued pollution from fossil fuel generating plants is not the answer. In human health, the new science is gaining support from groups that recognize the ability of stem cell research to cure previously incurable medical problems.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.