ONE OF THE TASKS Congress left undone this year was the passage of legislation to set regulations and limits on "gene-splitting" experiments. Its failure to act is understandable. The subject is new and unusually difficult to understand. There is no consensus among scientists, or among those who observe science, on how the issues involved should be resolved. But a conference at the National Institutes of Health last week underlined, at least to us, the need for the congressional committees that began work on the subject early this year to get on with the job.
Gene-splitting is the term often used for the techniques involved in splicing together genetic material (DNA) from different species and inserting the result in bacterial cells. The experiments hold great promise for yielding knowledge about human life and ways to increase and improve it. But they also hold some dangers in the possible creation of new life forms and in the manipulation of the characteristics of future generations of human beings. Those dangers led NIH to establish safety guidelines for such experiments conducted by individuals and institutions receiving federal money. They have also encouraged several states and cities to consider imposing safety rules of their own.
Many of the scientists who spoke at NIH believe that the existing rules are too stringent. Some want the rules abolished. The fear that this first step in the regulation of scientific experiments will lead to further government control over other areas of science. That, they believe, would be disastrous to the spirit of free inquiry on which basic science depends.
Ironically, those who make the loudest arguments against government regulation in this field provide their opponents with substantial ammunition. Underlying their rejection of any regulation is the suggestion that scientists know what is safe and that the rest of us must trust their judgment - not their collective judgment, that is, but their invididual judgments. This is a dubious proposition, at best, and not one that is likely to be politically acceptable at a time when technological advance seems to be moving faster than the capacity of the public to understand or absorb it.
It may be that the rules NIH currently has in place are inadequate. For one thing, they do not cover the research being done by industrial scientists; for another, they do not seem to have quieted the fears of local governments. Congress should fill those voids with legislation that sets national safety standards for all research in the gene-splitting field. The scientific community will serve the country best by working with the appropriate congressional committees to ensure that those standards do not restrict research unduly but also do not expose individuals and communities to unnecessary risks.