Manipulating Genetic Research

The Politics of Uncertainty: Regulating Recombinant DNA Research in Britain. David Bennett, Peter Glasner and David Travis. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, 1986. 218 pp. $35. The history of science and technology should give us perspective on the context of scientific and technological development and provide us with lessons for the future when, as is usually the case, we again face similar questions. In this volume three authors—David Bennett, a molecular biologist/sociologist and Peter G

David Kingsbury
May 17, 1987
The Politics of Uncertainty: Regulating Recombinant DNA Research in Britain. David Bennett, Peter Glasner and David Travis. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Boston, 1986. 218 pp. $35.


The history of science and technology should give us perspective on the context of scientific and technological development and provide us with lessons for the future when, as is usually the case, we again face similar questions. In this volume three authors—David Bennett, a molecular biologist/sociologist and Peter Glasner and David Travis, two sociologists of science— present an interpreted history of the early development of the recombinant DNA guidelines in Britain and the United States.

The book is a detailed and factual account of the many discussions and alternative proposals developed over a relatively short period of time, during which the scientific research was moving much faster than the regulatory decisions. The authors envisioned this volume as a scholarly addition to the sociology...

The early 1970s witnessed two revolutions in basic biological research, both of which have had profound impacts on the field. First, the discovery of recombinant DNA gave molecular biologists a tool that opened genetics to a level of analysis beyond the imagination of most biologists of the time. Second, confusion reigned because the power of this technology was not well understood by the public and much of the scientific community.

Molecular biologists at the time were beginning to consider questions related to medical microbiology. Many failed to grasp the complex biology of microbial pathogens. Many discussions were not enlightened and the resulting communication confused the general public. This led to demands that the new technology be controlled. The scientific community agreed, but how to proceed? A new regulatory paradigm was needed and, eventually, invented.

The regulatory bodies established in the United States and Britain were highly effective. Each has shown, in its own way, that since relevant new scientific information becomes available so quickly, regulatory bodies have a constantly diminished role to play. This has provided a valuable lesson about the regulation of basic scientific research.

This history and analysis serves as an interesting backdrop for the current debates about the safety and wisdom of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment. In many cases the arguments are the same as those of the early 1970s. In some cases the same individuals are involved. The book documents lessons learned in the United States and Britain about regulating science.

The average person cannot tell the difference between two experts on opposing sides. He therefore tends to trust the person holding the position that danger is lurking and that the government—in collusion with industry and scientists— cannot be trusted. That is one lesson. On the other hand, the lesson learned over and over, and repeated by the authors, is that regulatory policy must be developed together with the public and the public interest groups if it is to be fully accepted.

The Politics of Uncertainty is another good chronology of the recombinant DNA debates, in this case with a unique focus on Britain. It develops interesting concepts about the role of science in society and the self-image of many scientists. However, it is heavy for the average reader and the analysis is not of general interest. It will have limited appeal to those outside the fields of history and philosophy of science and perhaps the sociology of science.

Kingsbury is the assistant director for Biological, Behavioral and Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation, 1800 G St., N. W, Washington, DC 20550. As chairman of the U.S. Biotechnology Science Coordinating Cornmittee, he was the main architect of the Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology, signed by President Reagan last June.

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