THERE ARE FEW areas of scientific research that hold as much hope, and danger, as genetic experimentation. In the future may lie such developments as the creation of oil-eating bacteria that would eliminate much of the damage caused by oil-mills, and such spectacular developments as breakthrough in the cure and prevention of many diseases and human disabilities. But also in the future may lie the possibility that organisms may be created which man cannot control. It is even conceivable that some scientists might choose to tinker malevolently with the genetic makeup of human beings.
These various possibilities led many prominent scientists in 1974 to call for a moratorium on such research. They also led to the guidelines issued last summer by the National Institutes of Health on how federally-funded projects in this field must conduct their work. Now, a high-level government committee has recommended that those guidelines, with some modification, form the base of a new federal law, which would control tightly the production and use of the molecules that are the focus and product of genetic research.
The committee, on which all federal agencies concerned with this research were represented, has taken the right approach. It believes that research into genetic materials must be allowed to go on; the potential benefits to mankind are so great that it would be foolish to deny ourselves their discovery, and the research is so challenging that some scientists would continue with it illegally even if it were barred by law. But the committee also believes that the dangers are too great to permit the research to proceed unregulated and that the federal government is the proper source of that regulation.
Drafting of the legislation has begun at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and will no doubt be difficult. We have had precious little experience in limiting what research scientists can and cannot do. And we have not had much more experience in requiring industrial scientists to keep the government informed of the kind of products they are attempting to develop for their employers. But the need is clear for requiring that the federal government be told what kind of genetic research is under way and that it have the power to ensure that the research is conducted in facilities that meet safety standards sufficiently high to minimize the possibility of, say, loosing new creatures in the world. Developing rules that accomplish those ends without stifling scientific inquiry may be difficult, particularly for a department noted for its ability to complicate enormously the administration of even simple programs, but it must be done, and done quickly.
Genetic research is more than an American problem, and concerns about its promise and its dangers are widely shared. Substantial work is under way, on both the research itself and the ways in which it should be regulated, in other countries, these include the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe and Canada. Once Congress determines how research is to proceed in this country, the groundwork for an international agreement will have been laid. The need for such an agreement is as clear as the need for domestic regulation. A tragic mistake in this kind of research anywhere in the world could endanger all of us, just as a brilliant discovery in any country could benefit all mankind.