A group of scientists supporting tight controls on research in genetic manipulation has charged that opponents of such controls are misleading the public into thinking the research is safe.
The salvo from more than 50 scientists and 50 "concerned citizens" is the latest round in the battle over how much voice government and the public should have in controlling the direction of controvtrsial scientific research.
The scientific community appears split down the middle on the question as Congress moves toward legislating control over work to create new forms of life by manipulation of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), the chemical that carries heridity within all cells.
"The fact that no disaster has occurred so far from this work does not show us that the future will be as safe, especially since the use of recombinant DNA techniques is spreading rapidly," said the group's statement, released last week. "A mishap, though rare, might be devastating."
Opponents of the resarch have worried that new forms of life might include uncontrollable diseases or deadly viruses that may inadvertently escape the laboratories. Such worries were first voiced by the scientists doing the DNA work, who declared a voluntary research moratorium while the issue was debated.
The National Institutes of Health issued guidelines last year for all federally funded research. The current battle is joined over pending legislation to extend those guidelines in modified form to cover privately funded research as well. The legislation was submitted by Rep. Paul G. Rogers (D-Fla.) and is scheduled for markup today in the House Commerce COmmittee.
The group backing tight controls on the latest statement was organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and the Friends of the Earth. In its statement, the group complained that press reports of a June scientists' gathering in Falmouth, Mass., "seriously distort the consensus" reached there.
The meeting agreed, the group said, that the organism being used for most DNA research, a weadened form of microscopic bacterium called. E. coli K-12, could not ve converted into some monster or disease-causing form. A summary of the meeting by its chairman, Dr. Sherwood Gorbach of Tufts University, the statement went on, reported that fact and was widely ballyhooed, but it left out other issues that "were not resolved and are still a cause of concern to many of us."
Those issues include whether the E. Coli could transfer its genetic material to other bacteria and whether ohter bacteria are or can be made to ber as safe as the E. coli.
"Dr. Gorbach's letter was clearly publicized by the NIH in a fashion in clined to bolster public confidence in the safety of the work," the satement said.
The group also criticized the Rogers bill as lacking sufficient community involviment and vesting too much power in the NIH and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "Congress must not lose sight of the bureaucratic truism that those who are promoting a possibly dangerous activity must not be in charge of monitoring it alsc," the statement said.
Steve Lawton of Rogers' subcommittee staff defended the legislation as providing for local "biohazard" committees of citizens, scientists, local government and health officials as the first line of control over institutions doing DNA work. "Our bill contains the flexibility to allow nondangerous NDNA research to be free of regulation," he said.
The Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee has scheduled hearings Nov. 2, 3 and 10 on all aspects of the DNA research question. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) recently withdrew suport from his won bill to license DNA laboratories and called for a new one-year study commission on the matter.