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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 44.2 (2001) 208-220

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Drawing the Line in Genetic Engineering
Self-Regulation and Public Participation

Charles Weiner

On 6 November 1974, David Baltimore presented an informal talk to an interdisciplinary faculty group at MIT. He entitled it "Where Does Molecular Biology Become More of a Hazard Than a Promise?" and described the new recombinant DNA techniques and the possibility that they could give rise to "the potential for public health problems." Baltimore explained that the Asilomar conference scheduled for February 1975 was an attempt to show that scientists could regulate themselves and was a way "of avoiding governmental responses" which would be too rigid, too hard to reverse, and too hard to work within. He concluded: "We're stuck between self-determination of limits and imposition of orthodoxy. We're stuck between self-interest of scientists and the public interest" (Baltimore 1974). As I listened I was impressed with this effort for responsibility and self-regulation, but I wondered how it was possible to exclude the public in a matter that should be of public concern.

That was the beginning of my interest in the subject. As a historian of contemporary science focusing on social responsibility issues, I was drawn to it. In 1975 I started a project to document the development of the "recombinant DNA controversy" while events were happening, while recollections of participants [End Page 208] were still fresh, and while ephemeral documents were still available. The project received extraordinary cooperation from the participants, who agreed that these historically important developments should be documented and studied. By 1979 we had deposited for research use in the MIT Archives transcripts of detailed oral history interviews with 120 individuals, including organizers and participants at the 1975 Asilomar conference, researchers, policymakers, legislators, lobbyists, journalists, and members of local citizens review boards. The interview transcripts supplemented thousands of other documents, including letters, memoranda, minutes and reports, and more than 100 videotapes and audiotapes of meetings and hearings (Weiner 1979a; Dorman 1980). Now known as the Recombinant DNA History Collection, this archive of material has been widely used (Krimsky 1982; Wright 1994; Gottweis 1998).

These materials and my own observations show biologists' deep concern with public response, and their efforts to anticipate, influence, and control it. Biologists feared that the public's apprehension about hazards could lead to political intervention that might threaten funding for research using recombinant DNA techniques, and they worried that scientists might lose control over research choices and procedures. Several historical examples illustrate these concerns.

The 1973 Gordon Conference Letter

At the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids, the participants decided to write a letter to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the potential hazards of the newly developed recombinant DNA techniques and to devise a plan to do something about them. They voted by a large majority to compose the letter, which was then written by Maxine Singer and Dieter Söll, and they approved the content of it. They also voted, this time by a slim margin, to send a copy of the letter to be published in Science. The reluctance of many of the participating scientists to call public attention to the problem was an indication of a continuing conflict. They were concerned about a possible public health problem, and yet they feared that talking about it publicly might bring intrusion, as they saw it, into the scientific process. The Gordon Conference letter, replete with technical language, was intended for other scientists. It was published in Science in 1973 and did not generate much public attention (Singer and Söll 1973).

The Berg Letter

The National Academy asked Paul Berg to consider the issues raised by the Gordon Conference letter, and he set up a group of biologists, including a few who had previously worked with him to organize a conference at Asilomar in January 1973 on biohazards in research use of viruses. Most of the assembled group had both a potential stake in doing recombinant DNA experiments and the necessary background and desire...


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