To create high-paying jobs in Connecticut, economic development professionals often remind us that the future belongs to places that value education and knowledge creation.
We've been through a rough patch, transitioning from old-line manufacturing to a knowledge-based economy. Nonetheless, there is a silver lining. We're open-minded and embrace the pursuit of knowledge, so we're well positioned to attract employers willing and able to pay high wages for high value-added work.
We haven't wasted time debating pseudo-science or whether topics like evolution should be taught in schools. Instead, we courageously embraced issues like regenerative medicine and stem cell research. In the process, we've drawn cutting-edge science, rooted new companies and built bright career pathways here in Connecticut.
This month, the General Assembly debated a proposed law that would ban an idea. The Connecticut Senate approved the bill, but luckily reason prevailed in the House, where it was defeated. Still, the precedent of legislators trying to cut off scientific inquiry is a cautionary tale — something we should learn from and not repeat.
The idea in question is to use what we've learned about the plant genome to do more quickly and with greater safety what farmers have done for thousands of years: breed a better plant. But rather than encouraging knowledge creation and innovation, of seeing where the science takes us, some legislators wanted to quash the research by banning a product that is only under development.
That product is a Kentucky bluegrass that would require fewer herbicide applications, be drought tolerant and be slow growing. If this research effort works, the new turf would decrease water consumption, protect our watershed and lower carbon emissions.
Gentler on the environment, healthier for us and part of the solution to global warming — what's not to like?
For those against the use of biotechnology to improve plants, it's about the term "genetically modified organism." They invoke poor and sometimes pseudo science to ratchet up fear in the hope that emotion will stomp out rational analysis. Somehow greater scientific knowledge is a bad thing.
Like book burners, they don't want us to have the facts. They don't want us to see where the science will lead. It is difficult to argue that more information, more knowledge, is not better than less, but for the opponents of genetic modification, this new knowledge could lead to some undocumented sin against the environment and so it should be banned.
But think about it: When farmers laboriously cross-breed a plant, say the peanut, they are mixing thousands, if not millions of genes to achieve one desired trait, say drought tolerance. Along the way, though, they might inadvertently create an unwanted trait, including dangerous allergens. Use of biotechnology allows scientists to remove and replace the specific and very small number of unwanted or suboptimal traits.
Here's how the biotechnology results in less herbicide use. Invasive weeds such as crabgrass typically invade athletic fields, parks and lawns in the springtime. Left to grow, they create ever-expanding spaces of exposed soil, which remain when the weeds die in the winter and provide fertile ground for new weeds to grow the following season.
Once established, the biotech grass in development would allow multiple varieties of weeds to be individually targeted by spot spraying with a single herbicide, which would eradicate the weed without harming the surrounding turf, thereby reducing the need to douse the entire lawn with herbicides.
Back to economic development. Apart from this proposed law's assault on science, it is a dreadful, chilling, message to all those researchers, companies and entrepreneurs we hope to attract to Connecticut. In highly educated but high-cost Connecticut, we've worked hard to build an innovation culture and a thriving biotech cluster in an effort to build a base of high-paying and secure jobs, usually replete with robust benefits. It is especially counterproductive to pass laws that subvert scientific inquiry.
We've worked hard to change the perception that Connecticut is unfriendly to business. We certainly don't want to send the message that the employers of the future are unwelcome in Connecticut by broadcasting to all our competitor states and countries that Connecticut is unfriendly to science.
Paul R. Pescatello is a board member of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, based in New Haven, and chairman of the New England Biotechnology Association.Copyright © 2015, CT Now