For those dedicated to freedom of scientific research, Jeremy Rifkin is a conundrum. This ever-active opponent of genetic engineering seems to be constantly in court seeking injunctions against various experiments. He makes no secret of the fact that he would like to shut down genetic engineering research altogether. That would be both socially and scientifically unacceptable.
But, in bringing or joining suits against specific experiments, he raises questions of ethics and social policy which urgently need to be answered. Experts tend to dismiss Rifkin because he knows so little science that he makes ludicrous technical booboos. This, however, often becomes an excuse to dismiss Rifkin's ethical and social concerns. And that is a serious mistake.
Last week, for example, Rifkin joined the Humane Society in seeking an injunction to halt experiments that involve incorporation of a replica of a human gene encoded for a growth hormone into the genetic makeup of sheep and pigs. This extends research reported last year by Ralph Brinster of the University of Pennsylvania in which such a gene was given to mice. This produced the highly publicized ''supermice,'' which grew to twice the normal size and which passed on the new gene to their offspring. At the time, some experts expressed the hope that such research could point the way to improving livestock. This, now, is the strategic objective of the two-year-old joint research project by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Brinster's laboratory, which the plaintiffs seek to stop.
Rifkin had his Foundation on Economic Trends join the Humane Society suit because he considers the research to be ''unlike any experiment in history.'' In his view, it ''represents a radical change in animal husbandry.'' He says, ''I think most people in the country will be disturbed that human genes are being placed in the hereditary makeup of other species.'' (All quotations are from wire service dispatches.)
As the suit itself expresses it: ''By forcing other species to accept human genes into their hereditary blueprint, defendants demonstrate a total lack of regard for the principle of species borders, a principle woven into the very fabric of biological and ecological systems.''
Although the suit formally challenges the experiments on grounds of procedural violations of environmental and administrative law, the above sentence subsumes the ethical and social concerns, which are the real issue. Some scientists may consider this research to be an extension of the traditional genetic manipulation of livestock by selective breeding. But the plaintiffs believe it represents a fundamental change.
Socially, there is concern that the researchers are moving beyond the point where present scientific knowledge can reasonably be expected to ensure there are no long-term environmental or biological hazards. Humane Society veterinarian Michael Fox charges that the experimenters ''are endeavoring to improve upon nature without really understanding how nature works.'' This raises the question: To what extent should society regulate such research more strictly?
Ethically, there is concern about the extent to which it is proper to tinker with organic life. Unlike Rifkin, Fox has no desire to stop all genetic engineering research. He says that would be ''stupid.'' He acknowledges that ''there are advantages to developing drought-resistant crops and new vaccines.'' But Fox explains that ''we have an ethical concern about changing the basic nature of animals into becoming basically biological machines.'' He adds that ''we are crossing the line here and violating the sanctity and dignity of life.'' In the background, there is a general concern about possible future genetic tinkering with people.
The researchers themselves are understandably outraged at any suggestion of the ''mad scientist'' image. Harold W. Hawk, who heads the USDA animal reproduction laboratory, notes that the work is ''not anywhere near the point'' of widespread genetic engineering of livestock. Furthermore, he says, the scientists plan to switch from using human genetic material to using growth hormone genes from cattle. Also, Bruce Schwartz, a spokesman for the USDA research service, explains, ''If anything were to go awry it would obviously be stopped, and that would be it.''
Such reassurances are valid as far as they go. But they fail to address the basic concerns raised by the suit - concerns that are widespread among the public generally. In any given instance, specific research, taken on its merits, may indeed be well conceived and devoid of long-term dangers. But each such project is another step down a new road of biological engineering toward destinations no one can foresee. Thus the reassurances dodge the most important issues.
Dan Laster of the USDA Agricultural Research Service acknowledges this. Even while insisting that the USDA experiments are scientifically sound, he says, ''We just haven't dealt with the ethical question as it relates to the changing of farm animals. It hasn't been addressed.''
That, of course, is precisely Rifkin's point - and the point on which he should be taken very seriously. Genetic research is raising profound social and ethical issues that should be resolved before that research progresses much further. Furthermore, the courts are a poor forum in which to confront this important challenge. It should be addressed by Congress and by public forums generally. But until this is done, Rifkin and his allies can be expected to show up regularly in the courtroom, trying to awaken US society to its new responsibilities.