The recombinant DNA case: balancing scientific and political decision-making

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Virginia Tech


The unfolding of recombinant DNA, from research technique to political issue, is described. As a research technique, recombinant DNA (abbreviated rDNA) has opened up new vistas in biological and other fields of research. But its potential yet unproven hazard has created uneasy feelings toward the technique. The controversial nature of the issue finally launched rDNA into the political sphere, involving scientists, the public at large, and Congress in efforts to control the development of the field.

The first group to regulate rDNA was the scientists. The scientific community called for a voluntary moratorium on experiments perceived as potentially dangerous at the time. It was an unprecedented act. The National Institutes of Health subsequently issued guidelines for a safe execution of rDNA experiments to minimize potential dangers to public health and well-being. Efforts of the scientific community to control rDNA was seen, however, as a politics of expertise. Challenges to this "technocratic" approach soon emerged.

Vocal members of the public suspected expert decision makers as being biased toward scientific interests, reducing rDNA to a technical issue. They rejected the experts’ tunnel vision and demanded a say in decisions. Public participation in the decision-making process precipitated community debates at locations where rDNA research was ongoing. A democratic approach to decision-making proved to be a viable policy-making mode. The ensuing local and state laws, however, seemed inadequate to cover global consequences of rDNA.

In an effort to unify regulations of the field, Congress attempted to legislate on the subject. Resistance from the scientific community, which regard legislative control as rigid and unnecessary, was one of the causes of diminishing congressional interest in the matter. None of the introduced bills was enacted.

For complex policy areas with uncertain yet far-reaching scientific and societal consequences -- like rDNA -- this dissertation recommends a policy-making process where scientists, interested lay persons, politicians, public administrators, and other relevant parties participate in structured communications prior to an emerging controversy. To facilitate the process, establishment of National Science Fora is recommended.