GENTECH archive


How genetic engineering gained legitimacy

  1/29/2001 Daily Report from The Chronicle of Higher Education


A glance at the winter issue of "Dissent":
How genetic engineering gained legitimacy

When scientists gathered in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference
Center in California, the new field of genetic engineering took
center stage. But self-interest was more evident than altruism
at the conference, writes Susan P. Wright, a historian of
science at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and director
of an international research project on biological warfare.
"Asilomar was about fashioning a set of beliefs for the American
people and their representatives in Congress that would allow
scientists to pursue genetic engineering under a system of
self-governance," she says. Organizers of the conference were
far from politically neutral, Ms. Wright maintains. They wanted
to persuade the American public -- alerted by the antiwar
movement to the dangers of biological warfare -- that genetic
engineering was under control, that scientists developing the
technology knew what they were doing, and that the field was
therefore in good hands. It was necessary, then, for the
organizers to restrict the agenda of the conference, "excluding
the awkward questions of biological warfare and human genetic
engineering that molecular biologists obviously had no more
claim to pronounce on than other people," says Ms. Wright. She
argues that in order to show the public that the interests of
the Asilomar conference were also the interests of society at
large, the public had to be convinced that if the scientists
regulated themselves, "the fruits of genetic engineering would
benefit everyone." She notes that when Sen. Edward Kennedy
proposed that decision-making authority be given to an
independent commission (instead of to the National Institutes of
Health), the biomedical researchers organized a massive lobbying
effort against the move. The consequences of that effort?
According to Ms. Wright, harmful applications have now advanced
beyond the reach of national, or international, controls -- with
biological warfare being the main example. It is a "myth" that
scientists in the field have ever been self-governing, she says.
Since the 1970's, military agencies and pharmaceutical
corporations have invested heavily in genetic engineering,
leaving researchers "increasingly influenced by these huge
interests," says Ms. Wright. The article is not online, but
information about the magazine may be found at