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What risks are inherent in new bio. science?

Anton Scott Goustin asg at cmb.biosci.wayne.edu
Thu Mar 7 21:49:04 EST 1996


NRZM57A at prodigy.com (R Taylor) wrote:
>I have a question for professional virologists, microbiologists, and 
>molecular geneticists: What is the potential for evil application of our 
>burgeoning ability to understand and manipulate pathogenic organisms? 
>Could this technology, if deliberately applied with evil intent, be 
>enormously destructive, even apocalyptic?
>
Dr. Taylor,
Bio-scientists are basically very morally-responsible people, especially
in the US.  Just look at Paul Berg, who organized a meeting in Asilomar
(CA) in 1973 to raise questions about the dangers of recombinant DNA
at a time when it was a technique available to only a few labs at Stan-
ford.
The big danger I see in biotechnology is the increasing trend for such
endeavors as gene transfer to be restricted to a few, elite, highly-
funded, highly-connected labs.  This restriction is a natural outcome
of the peer review system at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
which requires that the review groups (study sections) which determine
who gets funded must judge publication track record as the only cri-
terion for establishing an award.  This system means that research
grants go to excellent labs who have established a track record of
publishing excellent research.  All fine and well in a climate where
resources are abundant.  National funding of biomedical research today
is at an all-time low, when compared to the number of researchers (and
the number of proposals that come to NIH for review).  Thus, funding
has become increasing restricted to a few elite labs, which usually
also have funding from other sources, especially private sources and
pharmaceutical company, venture capital and so on.  You can see what
I am driving at:  an increasing share of the taxpayer's dollar is
ending up in the hands of elite labs which may have conflicts of
interest.

Jacob Bronowski saw this danger in the physical and mathematical
sciences when he wrote his very popular 1973 classic, The Ascent of
Man.  In the last chapter, Bronowski describes how his friend Johnny
von Neumann, one of the father's of the supercomputer, became increasing
ly elitist as he became more successful late in life.  Bronowski's
warning about von Neumann concerned von Neumann's close, unethical,
compromised relationship with the U. S. government.   This association,
dangerous in Bronowski's eyes, was between a mathematician and the
government.  Today, if Bronowski were alive, I am sure he would feel
the same tragedy lurking in the close association between bioscientists
and big biomedical concerns, not government, but private industry.

The solution is quite obvious:  1) NIH must eschew funding the very 
successful and instead fund the modestly succesful, and 2) the people
must lobby Congress to increase NIH funding, so it can spread this
fertilizer around to the very fertile, creative modestly-successful
biomedical scientists who have made possible the enormous progress in
biomedicine which is quite concentrated in American labs today.

Instead of spreading alarm, I suggest that you spend some time lobbying
Congress to make more fertilizer and spread it around more generously.
Then, we shall see another big flowering of biomedical science necessary
to take advantage of the giant outpouring of genetic data which is
the product of human genome research.  Otherwise, what you will see is
this data creating more darkness than light.  A new eugenics.  Insurance
companies utilizing data to force companies into hiring only those
individuals with the (perceived) lowest medical insurance risk.  You
see the dark side looming, too.  It's not too late to reverse the wind.





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