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Balancing the Gene Patenting Debate in Australia

Client: 

Institute of Patent and Trademark Attorneys of Australia

PR Company: 

Callidus PR

Award Category: 

Award Type: 

Call Number: 

2010 C2 - 2

Year: 

2010

Executive Summary: 

The Senate Inquiry into Gene Patents is currently investigating whether patent laws covering genes should be revised.

Originally scheduled to report in November 2009, CallidusPR was approached by the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia (IPTA) in September 2009 to advise on increasing dialogue with the Committee and moving the public debate from one of general disagreement to a more neutral and better informed position.

IPTA was concerned that all the potential consequences of a proposed amendment were not fully understood amid the sensationalist noise and ‘untruths’ that were being disseminated. CallidusPR developed a plan that gave IPTA a voice representing the views of its members by:

a. setting out its position on the proposed amendment

b. developing strong and clear messages

c. concisely rebutting mis-informative messages

d. opening up a two-way dialogue with the Committee

The Committee has delayed reporting from November 2009 to September 2010 due to "the complex nature of many issues associated with this inquiry.” This is a success for IPTA because the aim was to create an environment for all potential consequences to be carefully considered before making any changes to the Act and this is currently happening.

Situation Analysis: 

The Senate Inquiry into Gene Patents in Australia, was established in 2009 to investigate whether the existing patent laws covering genes should be revised to either prohibit the patenting of genes or to provide exemptions for the purposes of research.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs received 72 submissions from scientists, research institutes, patent attorneys and members of the public on the issue. CallidusPR was engaged by the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia (IPTA) in September 2009 to increase dialogue with the Senate Committee to make sure the concerns of its members were heard and considered.

Of particular concern was one submission calling for a complete ban on gene patenting that was supported by a strong media campaign which was using myths and misinformation to garner public support.

IPTA was concerned that this misinformation might prove disproportionately influential in the public debate if allowed to prevail and if counterbalancing views were not presented.

IPTA believes a complete ban on gene patenting in Australia would be disastrous for not only the Australian biotechnology industry but also for Australian citizens. If genes, proteins or other biological materials were not allowed to be patented, this would deny Australia and the world breakthrough medical developments similar to the BRCA breast cancer diagnostic test, Taxol, Gardasil and the PSA prostate cancer screen that have all been created and developed in Australia.

This is because removing the patentability of the product removes the primary commercial incentive necessary to generate the millions of dollars in speculative investment capital required to bring such products to market.

While an official submission had been made by IPTA to the Committee, it was felt that other parties with opposing views had gained more opportunities to speak directly to the Committee.

It was felt that action needed to be taken to attract the attention of the Committee members and encourage dialogue between IPTA and the Committee.

Research: 

A number of different research activities were undertaken due to the complex nature of the subject and myriad players within the debate. In this communications campaign, more so than many, research from both a scientific and legal perspective was critically important to every level of the campaign.

1. CallidusPR explored the current Australian gene patenting laws and the terms of reference for the Committee to understand the consequences of implementing the amendments.

2. To determine the current nature of the debate, the key influencers, and the indicators of the Committee’s views, CallidusPR researched key submissions to the Committee, media coverage on the Inquiry that outlined the positions of all interested parties and comments from Committee members and interested Senators.

3. CallidusPR interviewed a number of IPTA representatives to determine a common position for the body which led to the drafting of an IPTA position paper on gene patenting and the proposed amendments before the Committee. This was developed in partnership with the IPTA Communications Council to ensure it accurately reflected members’ feelings and interests.

4. CallidusPR also researched high-profile industry experts to determine their position on gene patenting and suitability for involvement in an IPTA roundtable. It was agreed that experts with a wide range of views would be invited to participate, not just supporters of IPTA’s position, as that would give the roundtable a true reflection of industry thinking.

5. CallidusPR and IPTA researched all the misleading information that had been given to the Committee and to the media and set corrective facts against each ‘myth’ individually to clearly explain the potential consequences from both a legal and scientific perspective.

Target Policies: 

The key target public for this campaign was the Senate Committee. While an official submission had been made the Committee, it was felt that other parties with opposing views to IPTA had gained more opportunities to speak directly to the Committee.

A secondary target public was IPTA members as it is important for professional bodies to advocate strongly on issues that impact members.

Communication Strategy: 

The gene patenting debate is complex with strong opposing legal and scientific views. CallidusPR simplified a complex debate to enable the Senators without a scientific or legal background to understand the key issues.

The PR strategy was to clear a space in the ‘forest’ of opposing views to enable the Senate Committee to genuinely understand the potential consequences of amending the Gene Patenting Act.

Implementation: 

In order to clear a space for the Committee to understand and consider IPTA’s position, the implementation focused on breaking down both IPTA’s position and opposition misinformation into clear, understandable layperson’s language.

Rather than confuse and ‘dazzle’ the Committee with complex legal arguments, the PR campaign concentrated on simplicity in its messaging and activities.

Contextualising the debate

Key to the success of the campaign was to understand what had been said to date on this topic, what mis-information needed to be corrected and who the most vocal participants were.

Research was critical and included:

• Researching all information and misinformation in the public on the issue of gene patenting

• Researching all the key players in the public debate and understanding their position

• Researching potential supporters from the wider biotechnology industry

Material Development

The next stage was to develop a clear and strong position for IPTA. CallidusPR helped the organisation to create a position paper stating their opposition to the proposed amendments and explaining why, in a concise manner backed by examples and research.

From the positioning, CallidusPR created a number of clear messages that were used by the organisation’s spokespeople

In addition, each ‘myth’ and piece of mis-information in the public arena was investigated and a rebuttal developed based on accurate scientific and legal evidence. This was distilled into an easy-to understand factsheet ‘Debunking the Myths’.

A media release outlining IPTA’s position was developed.

Industry Roundtable

To capture the attention of the Committee and also to bring the level of debate from a sensationalist environment to one that looked at the potential economic consequences for the Australian scientific and biotechnology industries, CallidusPR and IPTA invited a number of high-profile industry and academic leaders to participate in a roundtable.

Importantly, leaders with a wide-range of views on the topic were invited, not just those that supported IPTA’s position, to create a genuine and authentic debate. Media also attended.

Media Relations

At the roundtable event, IPTA’s media release and the ‘Debunking the Myths’ factsheet were issued and an IPTA spokesperson participated in a number of interviews with news, business and trade media.

Engaging the Committee

Following the roundtable, a number of Senators on the Committee contacted IPTA to ask for more information on the issue enabling IPTA to set up individual briefings.

In addition, some vocal supporters of the proposed amendments also contacted IPTA and robust discussions were held.

Results: 

The Senate Inquiry into Gene Patents was originally scheduled to report on 26 November 2009.

After the IPTA industry roundtable, which resulted in neutral to positive media coverage setting out IPTA’s position, a number of Committee members made contact with IPTA.

Other Senators were contacted following the media conference and were also more open to meeting with IPTA.

The Committee has now delayed its report until September 2010 “due to the extensive evidence received and the complex nature of many issues associated with this inquiry. While the Committee has had some discussion over the conclusions and recommendations that it may reach in its report to the Senate, it requires further time to give more detailed consideration to the complex issues involved and to assess the range of opinions that were expressed in evidence during the inquiry.”

The delay of the report is as a significant success for IPTA and achieves the communications goal.

Evaluation: 

The objectives of the campaign are outlined below and an evaluation of each.

a. Define and take a strong position on the issue

CallidusPR and IPTA developed a position paper for the organisation and a set of clear, concise messages opposing the proposed amendments. In addition, a factsheet was developed debunking the myths and mis-information that were in circulation.

The development of these materials created an agreed, clear position on the issue. This was a 100% success.

b. Ensure the IPTA position is heard

The organisation of the industry roundtable helped IPTA to cut through the more sensationalist debate on the issue and ensured its messages were heard by members, the wider scientific and biotechnology industry and the main target public, the Senate Committee on Gene Patenting.

This was a 100% success.

c. Tackle the public myths and mis-information about gene patenting

Each piece of mis-information in circulation on the issue was investigated and disproved with the accurate legal or scientific information. By tackling the myths in a clear and simple manner, a lot of observers began to see there were two sides to this debate.

This was a 100% success.

d. Increase dialogue with the Senate Committee

After the roundtable, a number of Senators approached IPTA for more information. IPTA also contacted other Committee members and were able to engage in meaningful conversation with a strong position and clear messages. This was a 100% success.

The goal of IPTA’s campaign was to move the public debate from one of general disagreement with the concept of gene patenting to a more neutral platform from which the potential consequences to the Australian biotechnology industry could be objectively reviewed by the Committee. The goal was not to influence the Committee in its decision but to ensure it had heard and understood the potential consequences.

The Committee has now delayed its report until September 2010 “due to the extensive evidence received and the complex nature of many issues associated with this inquiry”.

The delay of the report is seen as a great success for IPTA as the goal was to shift the debate to a more balanced position taking into account the concerns of the Australian biotechnology industry.

The delay of the report to consider all potential consequences is therefore a significant ‘win’ for IPTA.