Dealing With Experts: The Recombinant DNA Debate

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Dealing With Experts: The Recombinant DNA Debate

by Bob Park & Scott Thacher

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 9, No. 5, September-October 1977, p. 28–35

Molecular Biology Against the Wall 

The proliferation of possibilities in recombinant DNA research has brought new excitement to molecular biology. Besides new vistas in “pure” research, remarkable applications and grim hazards have appear_ed on the horizon, and previously farfetched scenarios for genetic engineering seem much less distant.1 The commercial aspects have aroused the curiosity not only of drug companies but of industry in general. Molecular biologists are invited to give briefings on Wall Street. A skirmish recently broke out in the Commerce Department when an official proposed accelerated patent procedures for recombinant DNA techniques. (So far G.E. holds three patents and both Stanford and University of California have applications pending.) 

Simultaneously an unprecedented open debate has mushroomed on the control of this research. Numerous cities and towns, likely future hosts to recombinant DNA research, have joined the debate. For the first time, molecular biology has received local front-page coverage. No longer is the research a matter for “self regulation” by scientists, through the good offices of the National Institute of Health (NIH) which funds most biomedical research. The issue has been catapulted to top-level policy-making involving the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and an interagency task force which has recommended comprehensive legislation. Bills are now being formulated in Congress and in State legislatures. 

Harvesting the Culture of Elite Science

In recent years most working people have acquired a critical sense of the role of science and technology despite a tradition of science mystification and deference to elite authority. Many now recognize that unemployment, pollution, and disease are another side of the grand hype that science means automatic progress; they see that most of those white-coated experts are owned by business or government. Technology’s record has fostered this disillusionment: e.g. PCBs, kepone, SST, Tris, nuclear power, occupational hazards, etc. 

And so, in 1974, when molecular biologists themselves called for a moratorium on certain potentially dangerous experiments and asked that scientists discuss among themselves safeguards for this research, the news spread readily far beyond science to a quite interested public. Popular skepticism has been further stimulated by the disagreement increasingly visible among the experts themselves. But perhaps it was the prospect of actually engineering genetics—whether ours, someone else’s, or that of plants or microbes—that finally cancelled the blank check of elite science, i.e. knowledge in the service of powerful institutions. 

Open Debate on Usually Closed Issues

Debate on recombinant DNA research, both in and out of science, reveals that a Pandora’s box has been pried open; social control of science is a live issue. Specific questions arise in three areas- the ostensible benefits, probable uses, and unintentional hazards. But we can go further and ask what underlies the disagreement among experts themselves and then ask how government policy in science could become the province of the people? 

One benefit promised from recombinant DNA technology is a breakthrough in world food production using new, specially engineered species of plants, which it is claimed would significantly reduce world hunger. This invites examination of the past effects of the Green Revolution-increased yields from selected hybrid varieties of rice, corn, and wheat. The results have not been to feed the hungry.2 Predictions of new drug sources and supertherapies for intractible disease demand looking at the economic and social origins of most disease and health problems, questioning medical research priorities in general, and exposing what the high technology, “technical fix” approach to health care means. 

While conceivably new therapies will be able to correct some of the non-controversial genetic defects known, there are many other conditions- virtually any characteristic with a claimed genetic predisposition—where the “correction” would amount to a form of genetic repression of individuals by society. Who decides when human variability becomes a genetic “defect”?3 We need to spell out the implications- present and future—of emphasizing genetic fixes over giving society the treatment: they include declining social services increasing channelling of individuals (IQ in education’ occupational hazard vulnerability in employment), ‘and ultimately suppression of deviance, dissent, unrest, and other “maladaptive” behavior. While the ultimate uses of recombinant DNA technology are probably the gravest threat, it is on the immediate hazards of doing the research that the technical disagreements among the experts are most apparent.4 The debate centers around the adequacy of containment for experimental organisms as well as the pretense that molecular biologists (or anyone else) know enough to guess at the broader ecological or evolutionary threats. How can supposedly objective experts5 be in such disagreement? We think perceptions of “objective” reality are dependent on philosophical and ideological premIses as well as on other immediate and material factors in people’s lives. A large part of the benefit to risk estimate is speculative and thus is especially open to subjective valuation. For example, how one assesses benefits from recombinant DNA work is contingent on one’s view of the social role of technology; predicting hazards depends on one’s technological optimism. 

Another source of subjectivity derives from one’s own contribution to, or interest in, technology. For many in science, the value of their work depends to a considerable extent on how it contributes directly or indirectly to human betterment. In a society where institutions do not operate a priori to serve desirable social ends, there is an incentive to believe that better technology tends to shift the outcome in favor of serving those ends, that new knowledge has intrinsic positive value. Consequently, many medical researchers pursue answers to problems for which other solutions, such as changing social conditions, are lacking or are at least beyond their control. Some people, for this reason, may have an unduly optimistic outlook on recombinant DNA research. Others in science have careers whose success requires the rapid exploitation of scientific discovery. The advantages include publications, appointments, the realization of creative potential, esteem with family and colleagues, recognition by institutions and officials, and ultimately, entry into business and government circles. It is clear that in situations where advances are imminent, the personal benefits and risks of some scientists- as with investors—can very understandably differ from those of most working people. 

Popular Critical Awareness on Technical Issues

Because technical issues cannot be resolved by reference to an “objective,” neutral stance, it is especially vital that public policy6 in science be determined by a process based on popular awareness, organization, and control. One form this could take would be labor unions with strong member participation and control, with extensive education programs, and with active involvement in defining and enforcing government policy and corporate behavior. Another avenue for popular control of science policy is community-based organizations watching over, for example, the health care system, medical research, and human experimentation. 

Even without organization, however, public discussion, debate and criticism can have a major effect on the existing decision-making apparatus, as we are seeing. This process has not been encouraged by most prominent scientists. As Sidney Udenfriend, director of the Roche Institute for Molecular Biology7 and member of the NIH advisory committee on recombinant ON A research, explained: “I’m afraid there’s going to be some brush fires if we get communities involved in deciding biohazards. If we permit non-scientists to question our work in one area (DNA), we’ll open ourselves up to all kinds of things …. “8

How can good judgment on scientific issues be exercised by the “masses”? This, we propose, is analogous to the question: How do top government leaders and policy experts decide questions of science and technology policy? They rely on experts whom they believe to be credible. The people, too, should be able to evaluate the credibility of experts. What are these experts’ views on the general role of technology and on specific issues bearing on the people’s interests? How have they contributed to dealing with the real problems of working people, and what are their stakes in these matters? Evaluating experts is an important task for any popular organization. Just as the rulers of the country can pick and choose between experts and the opinions that they espouse, so can the people. 

Of course, the ability of the people to evaluate technical opinion would be considerably enhanced by their having more widespread technical knowledge and scientific understanding. This is a goal which progressive science workers and technical experts should facilitate, in contrast to what happens normally. 

The Developing Controversy 

In 1971 a scientist objected to a colleague’s proposal to insert the virus SV40, which causes tumors in some animals, into the bacterium E. coli Kl2. It was feared the hybrid might escape from the laboratory, survive, and result in a new form of disease. The experiment was abandoned. The subsequent, self-imposed moratorium on certain gene-splicing research was partly Intended to show that scientists could look after the danger of their own research. The first large scale discussion by molecular biologists of hazards took place in February, 1975, at Asilomar, Cal., where a rough consensus was obtained on how to deal with the safety question. However, the panel subsequently selected by NIH to write guidelines was made up mostly of scientists already using recombinant DNA techniques or planning to, and some advisors to the panel had direct commercial interests in it.9 It was a foregone conclusion that  the techniques would be developed and used extensively. 

With minimal public participation, the NIH guidelines committee plunged forward (with occasional backsliding), buffeted on all sides by threatened feudal science chiefs. One early draft, available at the traditional Cold Spring Harbor phage10 meeting in August, 1975, was sharply attacked by members of Science for the People and others as a retreat from earlier, more strict positions. Meanwhile, the debate went public. 

The first large scale public confrontation on recombinant DNA took place at the Univ. of Michigan, Aim Arbor, in early spring of 1976, when the casual intentions of the university trustees to invest in a campus based recombinant DNA facility were unexpectedly dragged into the spotlight. The issue was raised by faculty member Susan Wright, with several other faculty and Ann Arbor SftP members joining in. It generated escalating interest on campus and within the surrounding community to such an extent that the university’s Research Policies Committee felt compelled to arrange a full-dress forum, inviting a wide spectrum of experts from all over the country. It lasted two days and attracted a continuous attendance of over 600 people.

These comments were written by Sheldon Krimsky, who was a member. of Cambridge Experimentation Review Board (CERB). 

As a result of the Cambridge experience we have a singularly important counter-example for those skeptics who would not believe that a group of citizens could grasp the issues of a techni<;ally complex debate, carry through an intense investigation of the issues and arrive at a decision that was sensible and thoughtful. 

Basic science has just witnessed the end of its age of innocence. The events in Cambridge tell us that citizens are no longer willing to place their blind faith in research scientists who, in their eagerness to extend the boundaries of human knowledge, employ invasive technologies that have the capacity to alter significantly the world they wish to investigate. It is evident from CERB’s recommendations that citizens recognized that academic science has become an industry. Researchers and their institutions compete for ever more scarce federal dollars. 

CERB was sensitive to the fact that many of the claims scientists made about the risk-free nature of the research did not rest on hard empirical data. Proponents appealed to a priori assumptions, argued from analogy, deduced particular statements from evolutionary theory and made extravagant extrapolations from a narrow data base. It was the feeling of some board members that tests carried out under ideal conditions need not bear out under actual experimental conditions. 

The main emphasis of the NIH guidelines was on the short-term risks of spreading biolgoical agents. CERB recognized the potential of releasing hazardous agents with long latency periods. The board recommended a national registry of those who are engaged in recombinant DNA research so as to make long-term epidemiological studies possible. 

More than anything else, the report of the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board is a statement against elitism and self-regulation in one of the most carefully protected areas of scientific research. The following admonition was issued by CERB in its final report: 

“Throughout our inquiry we recognized that the controversy over recombinant DNA research involves profound philosophical issues that extend beyond the scope of our charge. The social and ethical implications of genetic research must receive the broadest possible dialogue in our society. That dialogue should address the issue of whether all knowledge is worth pursuing … Knowledge, whether for its own sake or for its potential benefits to humankind, cannot serve as a justification for introducing risks to the public unless an informed citizenry is willing to accept those risks. Decisions regarding the appropriate course between risks and benefits of potentially hazardous scientific inquiry must not be adjudicated within the inner circles of the scientific establishment.”

The outcome was that the two appropriate faculty committees gave near unanimous approval to proceed with the research, subject to the awaited NIH guidelines. However, far more significant was the effect of the debate locally in revealing the full depth of the criticism of the research, and nationally, in providing a stunning precedent for the growth of the controversy into a movement for popular control of science. 

The Cambridge Experimentation Review Board 

Just as final NIH Guidelines were about to be issued in June, 1976, Harvard University’s plans to build a P311 facility came to light. Aware of Harvard’s intentions, an interested City Councillor, Barbara Ackerman, attended a low-key “public” meeting called by Harvard’s Committee on Research Policy to discuss the P3 plans. Simultaneously, the facility was announced in the lead article of a local alternative newspaper and immediately hazardous research in Cambridge became a burning issue, fanned by some local politicians running hard to catch up. They included Mayor AI Velluci who gained national attention for his efforts.12 Thus recombinant DNA research became the focus of lengthy City Council meetings at which numerous opposing presentations were given and to which hundreds of people came, not all of them academically affiliated. An unprecedented 6-month moratorium on P3 and P4 recombinant research resulted, an act heard ’round the world, and equally startling, a citizens’ review committee made up of non-experts was created to advise on the research hazard. 

The experience of the Cambridge Experimentation Review Board (CERB) warrants close inspection as an example of public participation in making science policy. CERB, at the City Council’s direction, was selected by the City Manager and consisted of people with neither personal interest in recombinant DNA research or related professional interests, as with research scientists. Board members—all Cambridge residents, with an equal number of men and women- included a nurse, a social worker, two physicians, a businessman, a saleswoman, a university faculty member, a homemaker and an engineer. Taking its narrow assignment of dealing only with the immediate public health-safety issues, CERB met in both open and closed sessions biweekly for over 4 months and heard 75 hours of testimony ranging from NIH dignitaries and renowned advocates of the research to lab technicians and members of Science for the People. The board’s final position allowed the research to proceed but with significantly stricter requirements than NIH. These included strengthening institutional biohazards committees, monitoring escape of vectors,13 conducting local epidemiological studies, and setting up a city-wide biohazards committee. In addition, CERB recommended that the federal government extend the NIH Guidelines to cover industry, maintain a registry of workers in recombinant DNA labs, and fund health monitoring. CERB rejected assurances from Harvard and NIH scientists that the voluntary NIH Guidelines were a more-than-adequate protection against exceedingly improbable or inconceivable events. The CERB deliberations led to a city ordinance incorporating their recommendations and were in part responsible for the near-passing of another law banning P3 and P4 research indefinitely (defeated 6:5). 

CERB’s most important contribution was to show that non-experts could judge experts and make creditable public policy judgements. 

The CERB report14 revealed that public policy issues were not allowed to be obscured by the technical debates. This critical evaluation of the claims being made by experts is in sharp contrast to how the Science Court would function, as it has been proposed.15 16

There were deficiencies in the CERB conclusions, but first let’s examine how CERB was able to do what it did. CERB avoided becoming beholden to Harvard, MIT, or the science establishment in part because of the selection process that formed the board, but also because the development of an authority structure or hierarchy was minimized. For example, the original chairperson, who was also Acting Commissioner of Health and Hospitals in Cambridge, removed himself as a voting member on grounds of possible conflict of interest. In addition, all members were encouraged to take part in defining unresolved issues.17 Finally, at least some members of the committee had a clear perception of political power and the people’s interests, as well as an active commitment to working for those interests. 

It is evident that the selection procedure which formed CERB cannot be counted on routinely in selecting citizens’ boards since the success of this procedure depends on the orientation of the executive officers of, in this case, a municipal government. But even randomly selected committees of interested working people will not escape the problems of elitism, professionalism, and science mystification that affect all of us in contemporary society, unless some members have had experience in combatting this ideology. 

The shortcomings of the CERB report reflect conditions which no citizens’ committee could have easily overcome. It is unlikely that any representative committee (feeling the immense weight of world attention on its actions) could have strayed very far from the middle of the road in the absence of a visible migration of popular opinion on the issues. While there is considerable consciousness of the hazards possible in recombinant DNA research, very little organization or examination of the issues in political terms has developed on a mass scale. Thus it would be bizarre indeed if the committee had, at its own initiative, broadened the scope of its enquiry and pursued in depth questions we believe to be central: the likely specific uses of genetic engineering in class terms; the ecological or evolutionary dangers (in terms of infectious disease, soil ecology, and other specific areas); and benefits and risks in broad social terms—who really stands to gain, what are the indirect costs, who is at risk, and what alternatives are being ignored? 

Actually, many Cambridge residents were suspicious and concerned over the proposed research at Harvard, according to two City Councillors. An outright ban on the research was favored by some. Had this awareness been better articulated and publicized, perhaps CERB would have taken a stronger stand. The progressive forces in the Cambridge debate could have been very effective in assisting communication between CERB and Cambridge residents. 

A major factor in CERB taking a critical approach, aside from the nature of the committee itself, was pressure from a significant opposition minority within the local science “community” and the radical microcosm within Cambridge, both challenging the NIH/Harvard/MIT front. The availability of opposing experts including technicians—allowed the committee to perceive the political nature of the debate on recombinant DNA research. 

There are therefore two main lessons from CERB: 1) With some essential but rarely achievable prerequisites, a citizens’ committee can acquire substantial critical expertise free of direct control by nearby institutions and can to some extent reject dominant and respected views. 2) Without a developed progressive movement concretely involved in similar or related issues locally, there are severe limitations to what even a well-selected citizen committee can do in forging an advanced position. This of course confirms the basic strategy of relying on “mass work”—going to, and being part of, the general populace rather than concentrating on influencing law makers, policy-level scientists, or other persons in high places. 

A National Forum 

Since the Ann Arbor and Cambridge excitement, there have been many smaller replications of the same debate.18 In March, the National Academy of Sciences sponsored a forum to end all forums on recombinant DNA, in Washington, DC. The NAS, the most select organization of elite science,19 was probably concerned at the course the debate was taking and wished to present a moderate appraisal, especially for congressional staffers and the press. The panel of speakers was relatively balanced; the workshops were dominated by prorecombinant forces, but the agenda was improved by the heavy turnout of counter-forces: members of the Peoples’ Business Commission (formerly Peoples’ Bicentennial), the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Coalition for Responsible Genetics Research. The only person at the NAS forum speaking for organized workers was an official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union, who pointed out that the NIH guidelines were ludicrous as far as protecting workers in industry is concerned. 

Several developments were apparent. One was recognition of the extent of commercial inroads into recombinant DNA technology: a number of people argued that this technology, based on publicly funded research, should not be exploitable for profit. Another was the isolation of the most self-righteous and adamant proponents of the research from even mainstream, establishment scientists (who were a little embarrassed by this group). By then, in fact, the tide had already started to turn, and forces were being redeployed to the legislative field.

Legislative Shelter in a Storm 

Some academic scientists and drug companies who previously had vigorously opposed legal controls on recombinant DNA research emerged in favor of national legislation at the NAS forum. Their position changed because they sought future protection from actions such as occurred in Ann Arbor and Cambridge. Many other people saw the legislation as necessary to cover industrial applications of recombinant DNA technology since the NIH guidelines applied only to government-funded research. As a result, California and New York are both considering legislation to cover the work. Two bills pending in Congress would essentially write the NIH guidelines into law with stiff penalties to enforce them. 

The right of local communities to enact their own ordinances is an important issue. But the recent interagency report from the federal government emphasizes that national regulations must pre-empt local or state ones, and many scientists and pharmaceutical firms see this as the main value of the legislation.20 The bill before the U.S. Senate, sponsored by Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), gives local communities a real option to enact more strict legislation. Even Joseph Califano, Secretary of HEW, has felt the need to state publicly that he supports a local option. 

While federal legislation will clearly give scientists the protection and sanction they need for recombinant DNA work, many are very resentful of the government’s interference in their affairs. Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, raises the spectre of “constraints that will swathe the research with bureaucratic complexities … and generally frustrate a career in research. If (regulation is) pursued yet further, science could be shattered.”21 A majority of the molecular biologists attending a Gordon Conference in June of this year were greatly aroused by the possibilities of arbitrary government interference in their affairs and stated publicly that earlier warnings by them and others concerning hazards had been exaggerated.22 Nevertheless representatives of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association concede that dealing with federal inspectors will be nothing new to them. Politically aware scientists at the NAS forum felt similarly. Donald Kennedy, newly appointed commissioner of the FDA and a former Stanford biology professor, went further and said, “Why should there be more regulation? The simple answer, I think, is because it is politically inevitable …. How much regulation are we going to have? Answer: As much as people insist on, in light of their own social value calculus.” Biologist Clifford Grobstein, prominent in the debate in California, noted many at the NAS meeting who felt that “science has become too consequential to be left to the self-regulation of scientists or to be allowed to wear a veil of political chastity.”23

Still Congress may give power to regulate the research to the same agencies- HEW and NIH -that provide most of the funding for the research. The “Recombinant DNA Research Act of 1977,” introduced by Carl Rogers (D., Fla.) of the House Committee on Science and Technology, gives the Secretary of HEW full power to make regulations for the research and to lie ense those who undertake it. Just as the Atomic Energy Commission was unable to both promote and regulate nuclear technology, so too, HEW, which runs the NIH, will have a conflict of interest. 

The proposed federal regulations may frighten scientists, but it is doubtful they will eventually stymie research. Federal inspectors, according to Kennedy’s bill, could examine any laboratory materials and could destroy or confiscate suspected dangerous recombinant organisms as well as recommend heavy daily fines, but enforcement would remain difficult. Inspectors would be hard pressed to see through the mass of laboratory paraphernalia in order to use their power meaningfully. As an alternative, Rogers’ bill calls for local biohazards committees to be given the prime responsibility for enforcing the regulations, rather than federal inspectors. Such committees would have one third of their members from outside the regulated research institution and might possibly be more responsive to community concerns than a powerful federal bureaucracy. 

Will federal legislation make the NIH guidelines more effective? The guidelines ask biologists to understand and follow relatively strict microbiological techniques which few have been trained in. Molecular biologists, especially, are used to treating the bacteria they study as harmless. Thus the guidelines are certain to suffer from much day-to-day negligence, especially from workers who are convinced there is no clear and present danger.24 In one typical laboratory, the guidelines reportedly are often ignored.25 Both congressional bills ask that employees who raise questions about safety be protected from loss of their jobs, but such a provision would be hard to maintain without strong local unions and safety committees. 

The federal government is also trying to limit the liability of institutions doing the research. One bill, Rep. Ottinger’s H.R. 3191, no longer under consideration by Congress, made it clear that institutions would be liable for an accident whether or not they had violated regulations. The federal task force on recombinant DNA research, however, concluded that liability were unlimited, then the work might not proceed due to the costs of insurance. Already one contractor, Litton Industries, has bowed out of a government contract involving a high-containment P4 facility in Fredericksburg, Maryland, claiming it cannot get liability insurance.26 Limiting liability would require legislation similar to the Price-Anderson Act which placed a ceiling on the liability of a power company for a nuclear power accident. Although the act was ruled unconstitutional recently in a federal court, similar provisions might still be written in the case of recombinant DNA research. At the moment, Kennedy’s bill states that federal legislation shall not limit a citizen’s right to sue over an accident. 


Whether or not strong, meaningful laws are passed, requiring the slow, careful development of recombinant DNA technology—and whether they are enforced—depends on the critical consciousness of the people. The task of progressive science workers is to facilitate this  process. Furthermore this objective makes sense only if it is broadened to include all interrelated areas, e.g., medical research priorities, occupational and environmental health, and genetic engineering uses. So too, the value of citizens’ committees depends on informed popular opinion and agitation. Conceivably, legitimate citizens’ committees could be arranged by coalitions of organizations in communities, independent of government, to help clarify technical disputes. 

Evaluating experts is a political process. However, there is obviously no guarantee that politically progressive and responsible experts will necessarily have more reliable technical opinions and interpretations of fact. Ideally then, experts should be experienced in collectively defining positions and principles—participating with other, non-expert, working people. In this way the technical discipline and political sensitivities of experts will grow in good directions, along with everyone else’s .. Organizations are therefore needed in which both experts and non-experts can collaborate in non-elitist and anti-sexist practice toward progressive goals. 

When working people begin to routinely and systematically evaluate the credibility of experts, the face of technology will change: governments and business will be less free to design our future against our interest.


Last summer a group of scientists and environmentalists, including members of Science for the People and Friends of the Earth, met to discuss joint action over the proliferation of unregulated gene transplantation/recombinant DNA activities; A position paper was drafted calling for much broader public participation and broader policy formulation. The group called for a moratorium in gene splicing activity until such public inquiry could take place. Over the next six months, Francine Simring of Friends of the Earth coordinated the collecting of signatures on the position paper. On March 7, coinciding with the National Academy of Sciences Forum on Recombinant DNA, a press conference was held in Washington, D.C., announcing the formation of the Coalition for Responsible Genetics Research. The number of individual and group members at that time was over 500. The Coalition, with financial support through Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, has maintained a lobbyist in Washington, Pamela Lippe.

The Coalition is now in the process of organizing a formal steering committee to make decisions and be held accountable for them. At present the struggle for progressive legislation requires coordinated effort in different parts of the country. Among the activities of the Coalition have been: 1) serving as a clearinghouse and information exchange on genetic engineering, 2) maintaining a presence in Washington to follow executive or legislative action in this area, 3) pushing for risk assessment programs, and health monitoring of lab workers, 4) aiding isolated groups of community or laboratory people who are trying to have input into decisions affecting them, and 5) trying to make contact with broader sectors of the biological and medical communities. 

We encourage members of Science for the People to join the coalition by signing the position statement and sending it to: Coalition for Responsible Genetic Research, 72JaneStreet, New York City, N.Y. 10014. 

In Massachusetts, the Amherst and Boston Recombinant DNA Groups, Mass COSH, and the Harvard Biohazard Action Group have joined forces to organize a Massachusetts chapter of the Coalition. The first activities will be to contact local unions representing lab and hospital workers with respect to their ensuring representatives on Biohazards Committees, contacting the Mass. Dept. of Health, and making sure local Biohazard Committees function in an effective and accountable manner. Local inquiries should be made to the Boston SftP office, 897 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02139.

Eventually, the Coalition will probably develop into a Coalition for Responsible Research, which can take up broader issues related to the direction and character of scientific research, and be a positive force for progressive scientific work.

—Jonathan King

Bob Park and Scott Thacher are members of the Recombinant DNA Group of the Boston chapter of SftP. Bob has worked in clinical trials research in the drug industry and is planning to attend public health school. Scott is a graduate student in biophysics at Harvard, studying membrane biology.

>>  Back to Vol. 9, No. 5  <<


  1. Applications include: industrial microorganisms which may transform chemical and pharmaceutical industry, production of biological materials not now available, plant varieties with unique abilities, e.g., nitrogen fixation. Potential hazards include: disease-causing bacteria never before encountered, ecological disruption, and new diseases of genetic regulation, e.g., cancer. For a more detailed discussion of the hazards, precautions, and alleged benefits, see paper entitled “Social and Political Issues in Genetic Engineering,” by the Recombinant DNA Group of SftP, available from the SftP office: 897 Main St., Cambridge, MA 02139.
  2. H.M. Cleaver, “The Contradictions of the Green Revolution,” Monthly Review, June, 1972; Nicholas Wade, “Green Revolution (1): A Just Technology, Often Unjust in Use,” Science, 186, 1093, 1974.
  3. Jon Beckwith, “Recombinant DNA: Does the Fault Lie Within Our Genes?,” Science for the People, May-June 1977, p. 14.
  4. The concern arises from the use of the bacterium E. coli as a host because it is a normal inhabitant of the human G.I. tract (but occasiOnally causes serious disease). E. coli is used because it is the best known bacterium. But hybrid versions, created unknowingly when random samples of foreign DNA are spliced into its chromosome could create a whole new class of disease-causing organisms.
  5. Definition of “expert”: a person with extensive personal experience, both m theory and practice, in some area of technical knowledge, not necessarily certified by an academic degree. Being an expert, however, does not mean knowing the “truth” on a technical matter within one’s expertise or better understanding the social implications.
  6. “public policy”—fundamental policies laid down by Congress or Executive branch on which government regulation is based.
  7. The Roche Institute is the “pure research” arm of HoffmannLaRoche, the most lucrative drug company in history, maker of Valium, Librium and others.
  8. Drug Research Reports, Dec. 3, 1976.
  9. Francine Robinson Simring, “The Double Helix of Self-Interest,” The Sciences, May/June, 1977, p. 10.
  10. Phage: a virus that lives in bacterial hosts, studied because of its relative simplicity.
  11. P3: the second highest level of laboratory “containment,” ranging Pl-P4, for keeping experimental organisms isolated and preventing their escape into the real world, from which they could never be recalled.
  12. The response of the politicians reflects more than just awareness within their constituencies of recombinant DNA issues. Cambridge has long been dominated by the imperial giants of Harvard and MIT, usually with cooperation from most city politicians, with effects which have included the removal of most of Cambridge’s industrial employment and the constant encroachment on traditional working class neighborhoods by university expansion and housing for students, faculty, and the technological elite. In the 60’s and early 70’s, extensive industrial properties were bought up by the MIT-government-aerospace team to be transformed into an electronics,'” computers; and weapons research center. (Technology Square, for example, is a former site of numerous manufacturing plants.) The details of this process are contained in Harvard, Urban Imperialist. 1969, published by the Anti-expansion, Anti-ROTC committee at Harvard. The rent control law, finally passed in the late 60’s with little help from most politicians, was a significant victory reflecting the widespread anger of the people against institutions like Harvard and MIT. The recombinant DNA issue was for the people of Cambridge but another example of imperial decision-making, and many politicians could not afford to let it pass.
  13. Vectors: organisms containing, in this case, hybrid DNA.
  14. “The Cambridge Experimentation Review Board,” (report of), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1977, p. 22.
  15. In the science court concept for resolving disagreements among experts, as originally proposed by A. Kantrowitz, chairman of AVCO Everett Research Laboratory, a panel of scientific experts chosen in the usual manner of elite boards, would cross-examine technical claimants on the “facts,” never venturing to examine broader questions of why who might believe what, and of course never similarly exposing themselves.
  16. “The Science Court Experiment: An Interim Report,” Science, 193, 653, 1976; Arthur Kantrowitz, “Controlling Technology Democratically,” American Scientist, Sept.-Oct. 1975, p. 505.
  17. “The Cambridge Experimentation Review Board,” (report of), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1977, p. 22.
  18. Nicholas Wade, “Gene-Splicing: At Grass-Roots Level a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” Science, 195,558, 1977.
  19. Nicholas Wade, “The Brain Bank of America: Auditing the Academy,” Science, 188, 1094, 1975.
  20. “Interim Report of the Federal Interagency Committee on Recombinant DNA Research: Suggested Elements for Legislation;” submitted to the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. March 15, 1977.
  21. Chemical and Engineering News, May 9, 1977, p. 3; editorial excerpted from Handler’s annual report to the National Academy of Scientists.
  22. “Recombinant DNA Research: Government Regulation,” letter to Science, 197,208, 1977.
  23. Clifford Grobstein, “The Recombinant DNA Debate,” Scientific American, July. 1977.
  24. Richard P. Novick, “Present Controls are Just a Start,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, p. 16, May 1977.
  25. Janet L. Hopson, “Recombinant Lab for DNA and My 95 Days in It,” The Smithsonian, June 1977, p. 55.
  26. “Scientist-critics less fearful now of DNA research,” The Boston Globe, July 18, 1977.