While Congress cautiously examines proposals to regulate the research techinque known as gene-splicing, attention ought also to be paid to the still-distant but fundamental dilemma in that issue: Should certain lines of scientific inquiry simply to ruled out of bounds as too perilous for frail mankind?
The question is outrageous not only in its affront to the traditions of free inquiry, but also in its presumption that, if answered affirmatively, science could still thrive while parts of it are proscribed, or that legislation in one nation could have any effect on the worldwide practice of science.
Nevertheless, the current congreesional maneuvers over bills to impose controls on recombinant DNA research represent skirmishing on the outskirts of the basic issue. And as research techniques, in this as well as other fields of science, become more sophisticated and productive, we are going to find ourselves closer to the problem of decreeing yes or no on specific sciences undertakings.
The scientific community itself is far from unanimity on the virtues of free inquiry, though dissenters from the traditional view are in the minority. It was scientist engaged in DNA research who first issued the alarm about the possibility of hazardous organisms' being inadvertently created by the new recombinant techinque, which makes it possible to insert genes from one organism into another that is genetically unrelated - the genes of a toad, for example, into a bacterium commonly found in the human digestive system.
It was the same scientists who agreed to a voluntary moratorium on the technique while safety guidelines were worked out by the National Institutes of Health. And then, as Congress moved toward legislation that would override the NIH rules, many of these scientists suddenly came to the conclusion that more recent research had demonstrated that the potential hazards had been exaggerated and that legislation was unnecessary. Others, however, continue to insist that the perils are real, regardless of their colleagues' change of mind, and that recombinant research should either be forbidden or subjected to stringent regulations.
What's useful to observe, first of all, is that while modern science, at least in the West, claims a history of unrestricted freedom, the fact is that it has learned to live and succeed under a variety of restrictions. Most of these restrictions apply to research techniques and resources, rather than the sacred matter of the subject to be researched. But increasingly, the options for pursuing a line of inquiry are constricted by these surrounding factors.
Thus, a web of rules confronts the scientiest who wants to experiment on humans, sometimes to the point an experiment is legally out of bounds. And just as rich and poor alike are governed by the same rules for sleeping under the bridges of Paris, scientists with and without grants are free to pursue their curiosity. However, those whose interests harmonize with the preferences of the granting agencies do fare better when it comes to getting the money for research. So much of the myth of labcoat laissez faire.
The difficulty in trying to curb the traditionally open season on nature's secrets is that in basic research, you usually don't know what you're going to find until after you've found it. And once it's been found and published, it's there for all the world's technologists to exploit for good or evil.
In its present stage, the DNA debate is focused mainly on the issue of inadvertent hazard, and therefore it obscures the further off, and more basic, issue of dangerous knowledge. Those who argue that the research should be forbidden because something horrendous might leak out of the laboratory raise a serious issue that merits concern. However, rigorous attention to containment of the microorganisms is the answer - not still, it's a rational response based on extensive experience with hazardous experiments.
Not so easily dealt with, however, is the question of whether mankind ought to trust itself with certain kinds of knowledge. One of the severest critics of recombinant DNA research, Robert Sinsheimer, chairman of the division of biology at Cal Tech, stated the issue well when he warned: "Our thrusts of inquiry should not too far exceed our perception of their consequence . . . We need to recognize that the great forces we now yield might - just might - drive us swiftly toward some unseen chasm."
If some research is to be prohibited, questions then arise as to which research. Who is to decide and how are the decisions to be enforced?
Tradition and institutional interests make it difficult even to raise these questions for serious consideration. Nevertheless, the problems that evoke these concerns are moving closer, and it's not too early for scientists and politicians to be thinking about them.