The Asilomar Process: Is It Valid?

Illustration: A. Canamucio There once was a feeling in society--an "awe"

By | April 3, 2000

Illustration: A. Canamucio
There once was a feeling in society--an "awe" if you will--that science was nearly perfect and would make everything okay: If there is a problem, don't worry, science can come up with the answer. Cancer--no big deal. Cheap energy--why not. Fixing genetic abnormalities--a piece of cake. However, over the past few decades, science has lost a great deal of public support. With Three Mile Island and Love Canal, thalidomide and DES, mad cow disease, the Challenger explosion, and now the tragic death of Jesse Gelsinger in a gene therapy trial, we are seeing a turn from optimism to outright pessimism by the public toward science and scientists. Where once there was awe, now there is mistrust.

A large part of that mistrust stems from the fact that scientists, as well as policymakers, don't take the concerns of the general public seriously. Also problematic is that the scientific community has oversold science through hyperbole in the lay press and is now paying the price. Great promises beget great expectations. People have grown to expect miracles. Moreover, it's getting worse. In a serious case of one-upmanship, David Shaw reports that "news reports are filled with the latest [medical] breakthroughs, but they are often exaggerated by inexperienced reporters, overeager editors, and self-interested scientists."1

In this light, the second Asilomar Conference was held this past February in the identical spot as the first, the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, Calif. The three-day, invitation-only conference commemorated the 25th anniversary of the legendary Asilomar Conference in 1975 and included some of the original participants, including David Baltimore, Paul Berg, Maxine Singer, and Alexander Capron, to name a few. Different from its predecessor in size and scope--the original Asilomar Conference gathered more than 140 scientists and a score of reporters and lawyers to discuss cutting-edge molecular biology as both a science and a concept--the new conference gathered 50 or so concerned people, including me, to discuss whether the "Asilomar process" was valid back in 1975 and if it is still a valid concept today.

The Asilomar process can be summed up fairly succinctly: Is discussion among scientists regarding current and future research and its possible ramifications on society worthwhile? In other words, is a scientist-led process for identifying, analyzing, and suggesting a course of action on new developments in science that may raise moral and ethical issues or even pose dangers for society a valid one? Did it work in 1975? Will it work today, 25 years later, when people are much more cynical and their perceptions of themselves and their interactions with each other and their various environments are very, very different?

To answer these questions, we must first remember what the 1975 Asilomar Conference was and why it was so important. Actually, the 1975 Asilomar Conference was technically the second Asilomar Conference; the first in 1973 was more of a scientific meeting to discuss whether recombinant viruses being used for scientific experimentation might in fact pose some unforeseen risks, such as causing cancer in humans. In addition, there were discussions on the concerns of scientists regarding gene splicing experiments, such as the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids or the moratorium letter in which a group of concerned biologists called for a worldwide suspension on research involving recombinant DNA techniques until possible hazards with the nascent science could be better evaluated.2 But it was the 1975 Asilomar Conference that became the starting point for focusing a social and ethical dialogue on recombinant DNA research by calling for self-imposed restrictions and guidelines about such research, and will be referred to here as the first Asilomar Conference.

What the first Asilomar did was unique in the annals of science. Prior to Asilomar, scientists as a group were not proactively self-restrictive regarding their research. Nor did they usually discuss, en masse, the social implications of their work (though individual scientists have--e.g., Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt expressing his concerns about nuclear warfare, or Rachael Carson's writing on the dangers of environmental pollution). In addition, while restrictions have been imposed in the past on scientific research, never was it by the very scientists most actively engaged in the research, and certainly not before any known hazard(s) occurred.

The original Asilomar Conference concluded that certain types of recombinant DNA experiments were perfectly safe and should proceed, whereas other experiments were much riskier and should only proceed after containment guidelines were in place. A set of principles was drafted and agreed upon by most of the participants and eventually formed the foundation for the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Molecule Program Advisory Committee's (RAC) guidelines. News articles reporting on the conference appeared in not only Nature and Science, as one might expect, but also in the Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone. International press coverage ensued, and the public became increasingly aware of this new technology.

Therefore, here on the 25th anniversary of the Asilomar Conference, two questions were posed to the attendees. First, was the 1975 Asilomar Conference a good thing, and second, is the "Asilomar process" a valid exercise today? The answer to the first question was a resounding yes. Most of us at Asilomar 2000 agreed with Paul Berg, one of the principal players of the 1975 meeting, that the first Asilomar Conference "engendered public trust by showing that, if the scientists were raising these questions and concerns themselves, then this research was in reasonable and capable hands." Of course, skeptics abound, and even some in attendance at the first Asilomar Conference were critical and saw it as a mechanism for scientists to maintain control over their environment. However, for the large part, policymakers and the public embraced the concept and supported the conclusions of Asilomar as an open and honest effort by scientists to anticipate problems and render solutions to a new and untested technology.

As to the second question--namely, is the Asilomar process valid, to be exemplified--provoked a great deal of debate from the attendees, with most of the scientists very enthusiastic and other scholars irresolute at best. My personal perspective on this question is a solid, unquestionable maybe. Assessment by scientists for scientists has a profusion of merit, but the power and scope of this technology is currently so great no one group or faction can discuss it alone anymore. Some would argue that only scientists are qualified to make policy--that scientists use rational judgment while the public is too emotional to effectively discuss this issue. I disagree. Without input from government decision makers, industry, green groups, and the lay public in general, I believe that future Asilomars would be useless indeed. No longer can we operate in a vacuum. Public perception needs to be included. So while the process is good philosophically, it has little bearing on reality.

In a commentary written last year regarding a proposal for an Asilomar-like DNA summit,3 I expressed the opinion that we need to continue the Asilomar process, but in a forum that includes the public. We cannot continue to depend on 30 seconds of the evening news to educate Americans scientifically. With the potential for backlash against genetically modified (GM) foods like that currently in Europe soon to hit our shores and the current tarnish on gene therapy, skepticism about biotechnology is rampant. Comprehensive efforts to both understand public perception and influence future opinion is needed now more than ever. Simply put, we need to enhance public awareness about the myths and realities of recombinant DNA research and its applications in order to dispel the myths and articulate the realities.

Yes, it would be daunting indeed to attempt to include all stakeholders in order to engage their viewpoints. Frankly, I believe it would make for a logistical nightmare, but we must continue to try. The issues are critical as well as plentiful: human cloning, genetically modified organism (GMO) release, GM food safety, gene therapy, patenting, and intellectual property rights (IPR) are but a few of the more contentious issues that would need to be addressed. Complicating matters is that each issue is on a different point in its life cycle, so to speak. For instance, patenting issues, though debated for well over 25 years and even ruled on by the Supreme Court, are about to get white-hot amid doubts about who will own our genes. GMO discussions are also more mature (relatively speaking), but they have stagnated into a disingenuous "them versus us" regarding food safety, environmental issues, and ethical concerns. Gene therapy, first attempted in 1990, has had far fewer debates but will soon be making regular appearances on our nation's front pages. And we all remember how quickly mammalian-cloning issues got the world's attention, although the concept is in its infancy.

I conclude that an ongoing series of Asilomar-like conferences, focused on a particular issue (e.g., GMs or IPR) and free and open to the public at large, would be very beneficial in reestablishing scientific credibility. To be successful, these conferences must be advertised. There are countless small scientific conferences on esoteric issues happening all the time, but the public is usually unaware of 99 percent of them. The model of Asilomar is a strong one, allowing scientist-initiated debates to build public confidence as their concerns over biotechnology become increasingly externalized. But our fiduciary responsibility demands that we take the public's concerns seriously. The 25th anniversary of the Asilomar Conference was a fitting tribute to the legacy of Asilomar. Let us view it as an opportunity for a new start to increase the science/social interface and benefit us all.

George N. Davatelis, Ph.D. (, is manager of program development for Allergan Inc., Costa Mesa, Calif. Formerly, he was senior biotechnology officer at the U.S. Department of State.


1. D. Shaw, "Medical miracles or misguided media?" Los Angeles Times, Feb. 13, 2000, page 1.

2. P. Berg et al., "Potential biohazards of recombinant DNA molecules," Science, 185:303, 1974.

3. G. Davatelis, "A DNA summit: let's do it right," The Scientist, 13[20]:12, Oct. 11, 1999.

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