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Biotech leaders jump into US free speech debate

Senior biotech execs sign a letter in defence of free speech

US

Senior figures from biopharma companies, academia and the investment community have signed a letter in defence of free speech in the US, saying the independence of news media is being undermined.

Alnylam chief executive John Maraganore, Decibel Therapeutics’ CEO Steve Holtzman, Acorda CEO Ron Cohen and Jeremy Levin of Ovid Therapeutics are the main signatories to the letter published In Nature, but have been joined by more than 160 others in voicing their concerns.

“We are gravely concerned about trends in the United States that are undermining our news media, such that more than 300 news publications across the country recently found it necessary to run coordinated editorials in defence of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press,” they write.

“Why do we, in particular, feel compelled to speak out? We dedicate our lives to discovering and developing new medicines. In recent years, we have witnessed astonishing advances in medicine, including treating diseases at the level of genes and cells. These modern miracles rely, more than anything else, on the free and public exchange of ideas.”

News outlets – including The Guardian in the UK – banded together in August to counter what they says is a concerted campaign by President Donald Trump to undermine the media, repeatedly calling stories ‘fake news’ and journalists ‘enemies of the people’, using the hashtag #enemyofnone. Since then, use of the hashtag has expanded to highlight attacks on the press around the world.

Trump responded to the campaign in typical style, tweeting: "The fake news media is the opposition party. It is very bad for our great country... But we are winning!"

In the letter, the biotech leaders say they “believe it is critical to recognize that a free press is not equivalent to a perfect press. Reporters, just like scientists and every other variety of human being, at times make mistakes, can be biased, or may be just plain wrong”.

However, they add: “We see no compelling evidence to indicate that this is more prevalent now than it was 250 years ago at the time of our country’s founding, or any time thereafter.”

The signatories acknowledge that the public is increasingly receiving ‘silos’ of news tailored to particular tastes and prejudices, and less likely to be exposed to other perspectives. However, “the progress of science and medicine requires that their practitioners not only be exposed to, but actively seek out, such perspectives”, they contend.

While the letter comes as the US is locked in a heated debate about the free speech in general, there are also concerns about recent events on university campuses in particular – which is no doubt of particular interest to an industry so reliant on academic endeavour.

Speaking at a forum on the issue earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said: “Make no mistake. This Department of Justice is concerned about the suppression of speech that is now occurring.”

He cited a series of recent examples where the DoJ had to filed statements of interest to academic centres – including the University of California Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and Georgia’s Gwinnett College – deemed to have been acting in contravention of First Amendment principles.

“This has gone too far. It must end,” continued Sessions. “This country protects noisome assembly, immoderate speech and provocative speech. Whether left or right. Suppression of competing voices is not the American way.”

Article by
Phil Taylor

19th September 2018

From: Healthcare

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