Federation of American Scientists Case Studies in Dual Use Biological Research Module 8.0: Public Reaction Case Study
Topic: History Public Engagement

DNA

By voluntarily stepping back from exciting new recombinant DNA experiments and carefully considering the safety of the new technology, scientists earned the public’s trust.  In fact, scientists wrote and accepted their own guidelines and restrictions of certain experiments, avoiding the imposition of legislation or regulations. This was an unprecedented and revolutionary action, though it was not easy. As Paul Berg, the 1980 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and a principal organizer of the Asilomar Conference recounts in a background article for the Nobel Foundation:

  Frequently heard in the 1970s were criticisms of scientists for assuming leadership in formulating policies that were matters of public concern. This led some scientists to believe that the public debate itself was a great threat and that the fallout of claim and counterclaim would bring debilitating restrictions or even prohibitions on molecular biological research. In truth, many scientists grew impatient with the time-consuming, contentious debates. Yet the effort to inform the public also encouraged responsible public discussion that succeeded in developing a consensus for the measured approach that many scientists supported. Restrictive national legislation was avoided, and in the long run, scientists benefited from their forthrightness and prudent actions in the face of uncertainty.

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