Biotechnology's gadfly

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HIS opponents have called him a kook, a manipulator, a menace to scientific progress. His backers say he is a dedicated public advocate -- eager to alert society to the dangers of misusing its own technology. It was just 20 years ago as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania that Jeremy Rifkin became involved in opposing the war in Vietnam. But unlike most campus radicals, his activism did not fade with graduation and entry in the world of work. Only the cause changed.

Today, this soft-spoken, balding, intense man opposes scientific policy -- both by government and the private sector -- to promote and hasten genetic experimentation.

In fact, he has become the nation's most outspoken and publicized opponent of gene-splicing. His main weapons: the US legal system and the public's willingness to listen to his message.

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And just what is this message? It's this: Go slow! Beware of potential dangers! And assess public costs!

Mr. Rifkin's main argument is that gene-splicing should cease until a ``science of risk assessment'' is developed and the question of ``insurance liability'' has been covered.

He recently testified before the House Subcommittee on Science, Research, and Technology: ``Until these two related concerns are properly assessed and resolved, it would be premature for any federal agency to authorize the release of live genetically engineered organisms in the open environment.''

Rifkin and his Foundation on Economic Trends file suits against government and industry to block genetic experiments -- involving growth hormones, pesticides, and swine vaccines -- almost as fast as they turn out news releases on the dangers of gene-slicing.

Rifkin stresses that his goal is not to derail the technological revolution in this area, although that's the effect of his activities. He says he just wants to make the public aware of the tradeoffs. Meanwhile, he would have government and private industry declare a moratorium on most genetic experimentation to buy time to better assess potential environmental and societal risks.

``Every major technological revolution that I can think of promises benefits,'' Rifkin said recently during an interview in his modest downtown office here in the nation's capital.

``But what we are starting to learn is that along with benefits come risks and costs. There's a price to be paid for the new technology. Sometimes the price is worth the pursuit. Sometimes the price exceeds whatever short-term benefits you get,'' he points out.

Rifkin's opposition to gene-splicing is not only on a scientific or technological basis. He raises ethical, even religious objections. He even organized a group of national clergy -- with political views ranging from the National Council of Churches on the left to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority on the far right -- to call for a slowdown in gene-splicing work.

``Here is a technology that allows us to begin intervening with the genetic code of life,'' Rifkin stresses. ``We are learning how to map genes, program genes, insert genes, delete genes, splice genes together. . . . This is a long-term sojourn where we become the architects of life.'' -- C. S.

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