The Scientists' Faustian Bargain


Mass-produced insulin, antibiotics, vaccines, and vitamins. Nitrogen-fixing corn and wheat that require no fertilizer. Algae that produce hydrogen from water, fueled by solar energy. Eventually, a cure for cancer.

Science fiction? Far from it. These are just some of the possible long-term results of research with recombinant DNA, a technique that is revolutionizing molecular biology. In just the last five years recombinant DNA research has produced major advances in fundamental knowledge of genetics. Early this year the gene which produces insulin in rats was successfully isolated, transplanted into bacteria, and produced in large quantities. The potential applications of this new technology are truly awesome.

In the face of this potential, the U.S. Senate is considering legislation to slap controls on all recombinant DNA research. Sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, the bill would set up a federal commission to license research facilities, send out teams of inspectors, and—in the event of violations of federal research regulations—revoke the license and fine scientists up to $10,000 per day per violation.

Understandably the scientists conducting this pioneering research are up in arms. One senior biologist says Kennedy's bill "smacks of Lysenkoism"; others equate it with "prior restraint" on freedom of expression; while still others consider it "only the tip of the iceberg" of a new campaign to regulate and control vast areas of genetics and other frontiers of biological research. Even the Americans for Democratic Action has condemned the bill, arguing that past attempts to control scientific research led to Lysenkoism in the U.S.S.R. and to "some of the inhuman practices in Nazi Germany."

Ironically, it is the molecular biologists themselves who have inadvertently led to the calls for regulation. At the annual Gordon Conference of molecular biologists in 1973 researchers Paul Berg and Stanley Cohen of Stanford raised a number of questions about potential risks in the research that they and others were carrying out—such things as the accidental creation and release of hazardous new strains of viruses or bacteria. At the conclusion of the meeting the biologists voted to send a letter to Science expressing their concern and asked the National Academy of Sciences to appoint a commission to study the risks.

In 1974 the commission, headed by Berg, issued an announcement asking all recombinant DNA researchers to refrain from conducting a limited number of types of possibly risky experiments, until more information could be obtained. At the 1975 conference, Berg and the others voted to continue the voluntary ban and asked the National Institutes of Health to issue guidelines spelling out the level of safety precautions needed for different types of experiments. The guidelines, specifying various levels of containment facilities (labeled P-1 through P-4, in increasing order of security) were voluntarily adopted by most researchers, and were subsequently mandated by NIH for all federally funded recombinant DNA research, as of June 1976.

All along, the hazards against which the moratorium and the guidelines were aimed have been purely hypothetical. In five years of research and the creation of billions of bacteria containing foreign genes, not one person has been harmed. The biologists have bent over backwards to be responsible, taking all conceivable precautionary steps to protect against hazards that might exist, and widely publicizing their efforts within the scientific community. "This unprecedented act of caution is so novel," says Cohen, "that it has been widely misinterpreted as implying the imminence or at least the likelihood of danger."

Yet it is impossible to prove in advance that no possible risk exists. Just as it is impossible to prove that a vaccine injected today into millions of people will not lead to infectious cancer 20 years from now. All that can be done is to make the most reasonable assessment of risks and take all possible precautions. Which is exactly what the molecular biologists have done.

No matter. Political demagogues and professional doomsayers at once sniffed an issue on which they could capitalize. Teddy Kennedy began holding hearings on possible federal regulations in April 1975. In July 1976 Mayor Alfred Velluci convinced the Cambridge city council to ban P3 research at Harvard and MIT. State legislators in New York, California, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania convened hearings. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis argued for a "public right to regulate research."

And the usual crowd of professional environmental doomsayers rolled into action. Jeremy Rifkin's People's Business Commission invaded a National Academy of Sciences forum on recombinant DNA last March chanting "We shall not be cloned."

All the while knowledge kept accumulating. By April of this year, Cohen, Berg, Roy Curtiss, and the other originators of the guidelines concluded that their original concerns had been vastly overstated. Curtiss circulated numerous copies of his April letter to the director of NIH laying out the evidence for reducing the stringency of the existing guidelines. As a result, this year's Gordon Conference (in June) produced a letter to Congress, signed by 137 delegates, expressing strong opposition to the Kennedy bill.

Unfortunately, such pleas for reason and freedom are not likely to have much influence on politicians whose constituents have been inflamed by Sunday supplement accounts of scaly monsters crawling out of test tubes. And it is, after all, Congress which provides the funding for over half of all research and development in this country—and for the vast majority of all basic research. There's more truth than triteness in the old saying that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

At the close of World War II the American scientific community allowed its leaders to make a Faustian bargain with the federal government. To be sure, they didn't realize it at the time. They thought, naively, that by placing scientists in key positions in the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, they could obtain the benefits of government funding without the burdens of government control. They are now learning, as have public school officials and university administrators, that there ain't no such thing as free federal money.

This basic dilemma was anticipated seven years ago by biologist Jacob Bronowski of the Salk Institute. At a conference of the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Bronowski advanced the radical notion that scientists should "disestablish" themselves from government. By developing methods of selling rights in their discoveries for royalty payments, they could finance their own research, remaining free of government controls. Perhaps now, under the direct lash of federal licensing and penalties, scientists will awaken and declare their independence.