Self-Regulation of Science: What Can We Still Learn from Asilomar?


Can scientists self-regulate effectively? The controversial select agent regulations, the recent implementation of U.S. dual-use research of concern policies, the funding moratorium on gain of function experiments, and the 2014 incidents at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all seem to suggest that the answer is a resounding “no.” Yet history tells us that it is feasible. In this comprehensive history of the first iteration of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Recombinant DNA Guidelines, we examine the principles, thoughts, and behaviors that resulted in successful self-regulation of scientific research for the past four decades and how engagement of scientists made it possible. Starting with a willingness on the part of researchers all over the world to pause exciting experiments, and with a genuine concern for public health, the individuals involved demonstrated unprecedented (and thus far never replicated) openness to dialogue with others from different disciplines, the media, and the public.