excerpts only from a v. useful historical analysis that does much to explain how the biotech community became so dislocated in its perspective from much of the rest of civil society.
full paper at: http://biosci.umn.edu/~pregal/GEhistory.htm
Excerpts only: A BRIEF HISTORY OF BIOTECHNOLOGY RISK DEBATES AND POLICIES IN THE UNITED STATES
Philip J. Regal
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota 55108
The following was a 1998 Occasional Paper of the Edmonds Institute (Edmonds, Washington). Some additions were made to update the present copy (18 July 1999).
Scope of this Historical Synopsis
The Earliest Voiced Concerns
Analyses by scholars and scientists of the future impacts of genetic engineering* divided early into the following range of concerns:
1. Economics, Ethics, Politics. Global social, economic, and political dislocations and ethical enigmas could follow the growth of the new biotech technologies and products...
2. Biohazard, Biosafety. Some biotech projects could present serious risks to human health and the environment....
3. Biological Warfare. Military uses of biotechnology present various concerns. The potential for 'designer diseases' could lead to an international biological arms race....
4. Agricultural Germ Plasm. New economic forces driven by biotechnology developments could lead to losses of agricultural diversity and germ plasm....
5. Human Genetic Engineering. Genetic engineering of the human germ line would have political, social, and physical dangers....
Additional Concern as the Nature of the Biotech Community Changed
Changes in the biotech community in the late 1970s and 1980s began to raise a host of additional questions about the ability of molecular biology to police itself given the growth of conflicts of interest, political influence, competitive pressures, the need for continual large direct and indirect subsidies, and the need to maintain a positive public image to maintain subsidies, investments, and political power....
By the 1980s, factions that advocated aggressive competition, so-called 'free-markets,' and deregulation had become quite powerful in parts of Europe and the the United States. The pressure was strong to 'privatize' the public investment in the development of biotechnology as much as possible. Molecular biologists had become entrepreneurs and not merely consultants to industry. Many had bet their personal finances as well as their careers on the financical success of biotech. The line between university reseach, government research, and industry was becoming more thin.
The Limited Scope of the Following Historical Analysis.
All these concerns for the future are still very much alive. But the present report will focus on the history of the second of the above five areas that have seriously concerned scholars and scientists -- the biohazard and biosafety concerns. Little will be said here about the issue of food safety because this is an issue that was little appreciated and discussed among independent university scientists or publically until the late 1990s. I deal with the complex scientific and historical issues in a separate essay.
[to simplify matters (massively!) much of the early focus of concern, as regards biohazard and biosafety, was as to whether any mixing of DNA across species boundaries, even in a contained laboratory environment, might have dangerous consequences, ie there were often non-specific fears that any and all laboratory work with recombinant DNA might prove unsafe, Regal concludes:]
Once it could be said that thousands of GEOs had been made in the laboratory without any accidents, many scientists and journalists whose concerns had been vague began to feel by the 1980s that they had foolishly overreacted. They became reluctant to become identified with the 'kooks' who their leadership held up as examples of those who had concerns about safety.
They became reluctant to inform themselves about the new biosafety concerns over deliberate releases that began to emerge in 1984.
When one combines this widespread lack of understanding among the scientists with an aggressive public relations campaign to present a highly positive image of genetic engineering, to trivialize risk concerns, and to create the impression that there was an adequate government regulatory structure in place the result could only be tragic for society. In some sense the biotech community painted itself into a corner where it is today stuck without a clear vision of the future with regard to dealing with risks, public concerns, and deep divisions in the scientific community, and without the spirit or expertise for working out a satisfactory agenda for future regulatory needs and research programs to narrow the margins of scientific uncertainty.
Sociologist I.Rabino surveyed 430 recombinant DNA scientists and reported in 1991 that 61% felt that however inconvenient, the general controversies over safety had made the genetic engineering community become more responsible. Only 24% felt that the controversies had been over-all harmful to genetic engineering. 72% felt that the advice of ecologists should be sought on safety issues, and many of these felt that this was important to do even if it meant that the United States would lose its competitive edge because of the controversies over recombinant DNA. It was only a small minority did not want research/industry to seek ecological advice (Rabino 1991).
Rabino's findings are consistent with the experiences of my colleagues and myself in working closely with the genetic engineering community for over a decade. But we would add that the small minority that is opposed to ecological input have tended to be much more vocal and more active in government politics and with the investment community -- to be 'better connected' and more influential -- than the majority of research scientists.
The fact that so many recombinant scientists answered in the Rabino poll that they were willing to risk having the United States lose its competitive edge may not mean as much as it superficially seems. 'America's competitive edge' is a slogan, and many workers feel that it does not have precise meaning outside of the context of getting local and federal support for biotech. Biotech may well be destined to become dominated by multinational companies.
American genetic engineers are intimately aware that their colleagues may well be speaking loudly in patriotic terms one day, and actively selling their ideas or small companies to Japanese- or European-based corporations the next.
Yet the overall outcome of the progression from strong concerns to the fear of overreacting has been to promote a false sense of security, a tendency to avoid serious study of the issues, and to impede and divert potential progress toward the development of a scientifically sound biosafety infrastructure.