NATIONAL INSTITUTES of Health Director Donald S. Fredrickson's decision to lift most of the guidelines under which scientists have had to perform recombinant DNA research is a major milestone in a precedent-setting attempt at self-regulation.
Seven years ago, when it first became possible to separate out genes from bacteria, viruses or higher organisms and insert them into other bacteria where their function could be closely studied, scientists immediately recognized the potential dangers. The new techniques, even in their most rudimentary form, obviously opened dramatic new vistas in molecular biology and medicine and were certain to be widely employed. So a group of the most prominent researchers in the field joined in a letter to the National Academy of Sciences expressing their concern that these new recombinant DNA molecules "may prove hazardous to laboratory workers and to the public" and might require formal regulation.
From that first letter, and a three-year long series of conferences and studies that followed, emerged the NIH guidelines, which established minimum safety conditions for different types of recombinant DNA experiments. The conditions ranged from those normally found in any carefully run medical laboratory to the totally closed and sterile conditions that could be found only at the Army's old germ warfare facility at Fort Detrick. Some experiments were banned altogether.
The guidelines have been a source of controversy and have been studied and revised almost from the moment of publication. As scientists gained familiarity with the new techniques, some felt that the dangers had been overdrawn. Others believed exactly the opposite, always postulating new dangers that had not yet been studied. While heated disagreements persist, a new consensus has developed that many types thought -- hence Dr. Fredrickson's decision to, in effect, remove the regulations from them.
A few scientists among those who first voiced warnings believe they made a mistake. They have been hurried for years under mountains of paper work, experiments have been delayed until the necessary clearances came through and many experiments have not been at all because clearances were not received -- and all because of what now appear to have been unfounded fears.
We hope that will not be the prevailing view. Despite their flaws, the recombinant DNA guidelines have been the model of a responsible approach to a dangerous technology, and of cooperative action between government and the private sector. Had nuclear engineers, pesticide chemists and numerous others acted with similar caution and sense of public responsibility, everyone would have been much better off.