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Worried Scientists

In response to:

Fear and DNA from the October 27, 1977 issue

To the Editors:

For all of its other virtues, P.B. Medawar’s review “Fear and DNA” (NYR, October 27) ends on a very strange note. The real problem, he seems to suggest, is an “excess of fearfulness” on the part of laymen, and for that they “have only themselves to blame…for a deep-seated scientific illiteracy.” But that judgment ignores one obvious feature of the recombinant DNA debate, made perfectly clear even in the books Professor Medawar reviews: there was not a single fear put into the minds of laymen that did not originate with the fears of some scientists. Laymen did not invent the worries about recombinant DNA research; most laymen had never heard that such research was possible until scientists called it to their attention.

The most vocal calls for strong legislation, even a continuing moratorium, came from quite distinguished scientists—Erwin Chargaff, Robert Sinsheimer, George Wald, and Liebe Cavalieri, to mention a few names (and they were joined by a group of younger scientists, many of whom jeopardized their careers by expressing their worries publicly). It is almost inconceivable that Senator Kennedy or other legislators would even have thought of legislation had it not been for the strongly-voiced fears of those scientists. To put the matter even more strongly, I believe it was quite deliberate on the part of those scientists to want laymen to worry and, for the most part, they chose every occasion they could to spread their fears to laymen.

Assuming (and I am almost convinced) that those fears on the part of the scientists were overblown (and thus also the consequent lay fears), the real and long-term recombinant DNA story is likely to be that of the relationships among scientists when they are themselves divided on scientific issues with important social and ethical implications, and the relationship between science and the public. Professor Medawar says that “When the engineers have demonstrated to everybody’s satisfaction that they can do on purpose what they very much want to do, then will be the time to reappraise very critically the dangers consequent upon their inadvertently doing what they do not want to do anyway.” Yet it was precisely the glory of those who established the initial moratorium, and called the Asilomar Conference, that they rejected the logic of Professor Medawar’s statement, a logic which says, in effect, that one should only begin worrying about scientific research once it has accomplished that which it might do. On the contrary, they wanted to do their worrying in advance. That they did so at some considerable misery has now become clear; they got more of a public response than they (or anyone) could have guessed at the time, and, no less importantly, managed to their dismay to open some deep and enduring rifts within the scientific community itself.

Those scientists who called the Asilomar Conference, and called also for NIH guidelines, took their worries to the public. Most simply called attention to a possible issue, but a few aggressively sought to rally laymen around them in their anxieties. I think it would have been irresponsible for those who first discerned potential hazards in the research not to have stated their fears publicly; and they obviously thought so as well. They also, by implication, rejected Professor Medawar’s apparent belief stated at the end of his review that such matters could be left wholly in the hands of scientists. With the exception of a few shrill voices, the issue has never been the “competence and probity” of the scientists engaged in recombinant DNA research. Instead, it has been whether, in those cases where scientists are themselves worried and divided about the social and ethical implications of their research, they have a duty to share their concerns with the public.

The overwhelming answer to that question, both from the scientific and the lay side, has been yes, they should. Even if it should now turn out that there is considerably less danger than originally conceived, that hardly proves they should not have raised the issue in the first place. They did exactly the right thing, and though burned by their effort, their very willingness to run the risk of creating “excessive fearfulness” among laymen (and, as it turned out, among many scientists as well) represents one of the brightest chapters in contemporary science. Had they not spoken publicly, and word of the worries simply leaked out, the “competence and probity” of the scientist would have been seriously questioned. That, happily, did not happen and, if anything, I believe the public image of the scientist is now stronger than before. That the costs may have been high to the scientists, and continue tediously to remain high, may in the long run be a small price to have paid for doing that, and only that, which was ethically right.

Daniel Callahan

Director

Institute of Society, Ethics

and The Life Sciences

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

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