Biology Advances Must Consider Social Concerns

SCIENCE COMMENTARY

AS the new decade opens, ``the opportunities for exciting advances in the biological sciences ... have never been greater,'' exclaims the United States National Academy of Sciences. But those concerned with the moral and ethical issues raised by our growing ability to manipulate organic life may be less than enthusiastic. In a wide-ranging report, a committee of the academy's National Research Council looks boldly forward to a brave new era in which ``all fields of biology are being revitalized.''

The report explains: ``We base much of what we regard as our civilization - including agriculture, forestry, and medicine - directly on our ability to manipulate the characteristics of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Thus, these discoveries [in molecular biology and genetic engineering] have profound implications for our welfare.'' In fact, the committee foresees ``the fate of nations'' depending increasingly ``on their abilities to use the facts and principles of biology with wisdom and ingenuity.''

That being so, why is the report silent on the issue of how to use this new power wisely? It acknowledges that ``as so often in human affairs, a time of maximum opportunity is also a time of maximum challenge.'' Yet it ignores the challenge of deciding how to control the new biology and of how and who is to make such decisions.

Committee chairman Peter H. Raven, who heads the Missouri Botanical Garden, says the report was produced ``for a large audience: biologists; policymakers both in government, universities, and in industry; and other scientists.'' That ``large audience'' is a miniscule part of the citizenry. Yet, over the past 15 years, citizens have insisted on having a voice in the policymaking.

This is not to dismiss the report out of hand. It does address such important issues as maintaining United States leadership in biology in a period of inadequate funding. It warns of an impending ``crisis in training of biological researchers'' as US universities find their graduate schools filling up with overseas students.

It also notes perceptively: ``It is ironic that a time so filled with great opportunity should also be a time when a major fraction of the diversity of life on earth, perhaps a quarter over the next few decades, is in danger of extinction. Each species that disappears takes with it an elaborate and unique pattern of gene expression that evolved over many millions of years, about which we know very little.''

Taken on their own terms, the new biological ``opportunities'' are indeed breathtaking. As the press release accompanying the report puts it, ``modern biology is poised to make fundamental discoveries critical to understanding how humans resist infection, how a fertilized egg develops into a human, and how people, dream, imagine, and reason.''

This recalls a similar report on opportunities in chemistry that the National Research Council issued a few years ago. It too sketched a glowing future but ignored the great public concern over a science and technology that can seem to threaten our welfare as well as to enhance it. The late George Pimentel, who chaired that committee, was a scientist of broad vision, sensitive to social issues. He saw to it that this defect was corrected in a high-school version of the report, which has a full chapter dealing with the social and ethical concerns involved.

Perhaps Peter Raven - who also is a socially sensitive scientist with large vision - will lead a similar effort to redeem the ``Opportunities in Biology'' report.

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