IN THE MID-1970s, when concerns

first surfaced about the safety of genetic research, Nobel laureate James D. Watson was one of the few biologists to argue publicly that the risks were imaginary and the whole debate unnecessary. In 1977, however, when Congress introduced strict bills to regulate the research, many scientific leaders came to share Watson's view, marshalling a surprisingly effective lobby and virtually killing the issue.

The DNA Story is Watson's I-told- you-so, a jubilant "epitaph," as the text calls it, on a controversy he worked hard to bury. Equally well informed, his coauthor is John Tooze, who is executive secretary of the European Molecular Biology Organization and has played a major role in the European counterparts to American genetic policy-making. In form, the book is a documentary history, a collection of press reports, official documents, letters and memoranda, tracing developments in what became known as the recombinant DNA, or gene cloning, issue. The materials are arranged in chapters with short introductions; then, near the end of the book is an unusually detailed section on "Scientific Background."

It is a big, bright, beautifully illustrated book, a scrapbook for DNA followers, a compilation of some (not all) of the public "classics," peppered with private tidbits from the files of the authors and a few colleagues. There are some odd imbalances in the selection of documents -- an entire patent application is reprinted, but not the original federal guidelines because they would make "turgid reading" --and Watson's writing is more than generously represented. But on the whole the book seems harmless, a bit of good, clean, coffee-table fun.

For anyone who actually reads the book, however, its arrogance becomes less amusing. A number of important assumptions are presented as if they were uncontestable, when in fact they are very much open to question. The very premise that recombinant DNA technology is safe, and that concerns have all but disappeared, is far from universally accepted among biologists, policy-makers, and observers. Some fear that, by ignoring the possibility of DNA hazards, we are in danger of repeating the kind of mistakes that led to our present quandaries with the nuclear and chemical industries. Furthermore, Watson and Tooze largely ignore the broader, long- range ethical and political problems posed by DNA technology as it begins to have a major impact on the economy, agriculture, energy supplies and the treatment of human diseases and shortcomings. (These questions are discussed, for example, in The Double-Edged Helix by Liebe F. Cavalieri, an early advocate of caution in the development of recombinant DNA technology.)

When we very much need fresh, new thinking on genetic engineering, then, The DNA Story offers a tired old message: DNA policy should be left to DNA scientists. Public participation is treated as a "circus," a phase which, "fortunately, is fast becoming history." Opponents, while their writings are patiently included among the book's documents, are discredited (as they have been consistently by Watson) as irrational, politically motivated and incompetent. Such is scientific arrogance at its worst, shutting off open discussion within the scientific community as well as in the larger society.

Perhaps even more distubing than DNA scientists' own elitism has been the press' tendency to accept DNA scientists' assurances about the technology's risks and promises about its benefits. When the scientific community announced safety concerns, the press printed safety stories; when scientists declared that the issue was dead, the press ceased its coverage; more recently when scientists and company spokesmen proclaimed industrial breakthroughs, the press heralded breakthroughs.

Typical of the press' razzle-dazzle treatment of the new "industry of life" is a March 1980 article in the futuristic magazine, Omni, by editor Kathleen McAuliffe and her sister, Sharon. Life for Sale is an expanded version of their article, a gee-whiz catalog of prophesied genetic solutions to cancer, pollution, the energy crisis, inflation, faltering U. S. productivity, and old age. "Armed with genetic engineering technology, researchers are fighting the war against cancer on many parallel fronts. No one knows on which battlefield the Big C will finally be squelched."

Much of the information and even many of the quotations in Life for Sale are drawn from other newspaper and popular magazine articles, creating a broad and sometimes useful overview, but a superficial one, predictably with some inaccuracies. And like most recent press coverage, attention to the complex policy implications is limited, impatient, facile, descending at times to the silly: discussing the prospect that scientists might one day turn on dormant genes in humans. "Perhaps we may one day have the opportunity to grow back our tails!"

Ironically, the biotechnology that Life for Sale describes is indeed revolutionary, although the effect of the book's bubbly hyperbole is almost to mask the technology's significance. Both The DNA Storyand Life for Sale in effect "protest too much," one on the lack of risks, the other on the benefits, in genetic manipulation. Both from the scientists and the press, we deserve better.y