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Shades of Galileo

Few dispute that the biological discoveries of the last 50 years have profoundly changed our views of ourselves, greatly enhanced our ability to confront emerging threats to human health and the environment, and created enormous investment opportunities for entrepreneurs. Yet they have also created complex problems of public policy.

Following World War II and until the mid-70s, our national policy encouraged and rewarded unfettered basic research. Then a major breakthrough, now referred to as gene splicing or genetic engineering, triggered an avalanche of new discoveries in biology. The public, however, was less enthusiastic than the scientists. By the late 70s, debate was raging over what came to be known as recombinant DNA technology, and for the first time, certain lines of research faced threats of federal prohibition. Largely through the lobbying efforts of scientists, physicians, and the budding biotechnology industry, congressional efforts to prohibit rDNA experimentation in the United States were stymied. Research proceeded according to guidelines that mandated oversight by an institutional review process and approval by the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee. Lacking any congressional action, the science flourished, and the United States now leads the world in the developing biotech industry.

Largely soft-pedaled, indeed deliberately set aside during the rDNA debate, were the long-term ethical issues. Increasingly, professional bioethicists and the media warned that emerging knowledge of human genetics would inevitably intrude into matters of personal privacy, provide a basis for discrimination, and create undue anxiety. They were concerned about the potential for misapplication and even malevolent use of the new knowledge; they were not advocating limitations on the science itself.

But that attitude has changed in the recent debate among the polity (see “The Echo Chamber of Secrets,” page 118 of Acumen, Volume II, Issue 1) about human embryonic stem cells and cloning. Perhaps for the first time, the threat looms that certain lines of biomedical research could be forbidden and, indeed, criminalized. The controversy about human embryonic stem cells has nothing to do with threats to personal or environmental harm. Rather, the focal point has become the effect of science on personal moral values. Some members of Congress want to criminalize legitimate investigations aimed at the acquisition of new knowledge and the development of new therapies for very serious diseases. Thus, we have now entered a new dimension in dealing with the consequences of biomedical research. The debate has reopened the question of the proper relationship between science and society.

What changes can we anticipate from these altered perceptions? Today, and I suspect in the future, the public and its political representatives could become a prominent force in defining the direction and even the permissibility of scientific research. The quality of the science may no longer be the sole or principal determinant in pursuing a particular line of research; rather, the parading of theology and ideology as fundamental ethical values may take over.

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Paul Berg; Copyright © 2004 Acumen Sciences, LLC, All Rights Reserved.
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