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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, June 3, 2005

Biotech, Native Hawaiian link urged

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i can be a player in the rapidly growing biotech industry, but needs to be sensitive to the interests of Native Hawaiian culture.

That was one of a series of findings discussed yesterday during a presentation focused on ways to expand Hawai'i's biotech sector, diversify the state's economy and create high-wage jobs. The event, which was held at the Hawaii Prince Hotel, was the product of about a yearlong process involving 300 or so people interested in developing a road map for the future of Hawai'i's life sciences industry.

The report by the Hawaii Life Sciences Council said the most promising areas for the industry going forward are in the treatment of infectious diseases and chronic diseases such as cancer, digital medical technology, renewable energy technology and the leveraging of natural resources such as Hawai'i's diverse geography and demographic population.

The road map also includes strategies for building those sectors, including addressing issues such as workforce development, recruitment of new businesses, managing local intellectual property and communicating with the community.

Keeping dialog open and incorporating Hawaiian cultural values, including respect and preservation of the land, also are critical, said Mike Fitzgerald, president and chief executive of Enterprise Honolulu, an economic development agency.

"We know that science and technology can be a blessing or a curse depending on what values the science and technology are based on and how they're used and what's allowed to go forward," he said. "Continuing to base science and technology development in Hawai'i on host culture values that can materially create a new balance for development and environmental preservation will make Hawai'i a beacon for the world."

That concept may be put to the test quickly as Hawai'i's biotech industry and Hawaiian culture already have clashed.

Last month concerns about genetic engineering of organisms surfaced in vocal opposition to a discontinued University of Hawai'i project involving genetically engineered Hawaiian taro. Public concern, including from some Hawaiians, also caused a state board to turn down a permit needed by a Big Island company to grow drugs in genetically altered algae.

To get a handle on how Native Hawaiians feel about such controversial issues the Royal Order of Kamehameha recently formed a bioethics panel, which is gathering comment from Native Hawaiians on each island, said Bill Souza, officer for the Royal Order of the Kahu Po'o Nui, which is part of the Royal Order of Kamehameha.

"We're concerned about all those things," he said. "Our whole idea is to get Hawaiians to empower themselves and take charge and in this case the bioethics council is what we're working with. The idea is to get a dialog going because everybody keeps shooting from the hip."

Peter Apo, director for the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, said Native Hawaiians haven't always had a seat at the table in discussions about the future of the state's economy.

"Every major economic activity that occurred in Hawai'i since contact — fur trading, whaling, sugar and pineapple and now tourism, has occurred without the consent of the (Native Hawaiian) community," he said. "The nature of the activity was not so bad in and of itself. But the business model ... too often succeeded at the expense of Hawai'i's sense of place and her people.

"The life sciences presents us with the opportunity for leadership to shift the paradigm to (a) value-driven growth model," Apo said.

Reach Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.