WE WOULD not presume to counsel the "genesplitters," or recombinant DNA scientists, on the technicalities of containing dangerous micro-organisms. But, more in our line of work, we would like to suggest the advisability of those scientists' containing a particularly dangerous notion that is spreading among them. It is that they were foolish to have leveled with the public several years ago when they initially feared that mishaps in the conduct of DNA research might create dangers to public health.
Since then, the weight of scientific opinion has swung to the belief that, with reasonable precautions, the research can be safely conducted. That conclusion accompanies increasing evidence that recombinant DNA techniques can be extraordinarily valuable and powerful, as evidenced, for example, by research that has made possible the duplication of human insulin.
Nevertheless, concern about unforeseen hazards of DNA research has not wholly abated -- nor should it, given the infancy of this complex field of science. And, as a result, following several years of deliberations and a good deal of controversy, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare put into effect on Jan. 2 a series of regulations designed to govern DNA research supported by HEW funds.
The regulations reflect the increased understanding of this field of research by exempting several categories of experiments that now appear to be nonhazardous. In response to the scientists' fears of faraway regulators, authority is entrusted to local "institutional biosafety committees." To meet public concern about what's going on in local laboratories, the regulations provide that 20 percent of those committee members must "represent the general public and have no connection to the institution."
For many scientists, any regulations on research are intolerable, but with the added affront of laymen passing judgment on their work, the newly issued HEW regulations look to some like the harbinger of a new dark age. And, in the view of many of them, it all happened because they naively chose to be candid with the public or, as James D. Watson of "Double Helix" fame put it several months ago, "My fellow DNA workers wanted... to act more than clean and certainly to give the impression of being responsible citizens." Others have said privately, but emphatically, that the regulations are a direct consequence of a misguided effort at public candor -- and that next time...
Since there will almost certainly be a next time, we'd like to offer a few observations on the DNA episode and its implications for a congenial relationship between science and the general public.
First, however troublesome the consequences of candor have been for the scientists, the consequences of a bungled effort at concealment of their DNA concerns would surely have been much worse than the newly issued HEW regulations. Given the hundreds of scientists who were involved, and the intensity of their concerns, it is nonsense to think that they had any choice but to go public with their worries about the hazards of DNA research.
But, more basic than that, the scientific community should get rid of its antiquated notion of being something apart from the society that pays its bills, reaps its benefactions and stands to suffer from its excesses and mistakes. Contemporary research is too complex to be performed by anyone but scientists; on the other hand, it is too powerful and important to be governed only by scientists.
There are many lessons to be extracted from the tangled DNA saga. We hope the scientific community will not finally conclude that honesty was its undoing.