NATIONAL PRESS CLUB
APRIL 22, 1997
I am extremely pleased to be here. As an atomic physicist, you would be right to be wondering about my credibility in giving a speech about "cloning." Physicists have been known to present themselves as knowing everything. In fact, the distinguished British physicist, Ernest Rutherford, once commented, "Science is divided into two categories, physics and stamp-collecting." Let me be quite clear, that is not my view of science, physics, or stamp collecting! And enough about physicists.
What we all know is that a sheep named Dolly has written a whole new page in the history of our knowledge about genes. I promise to save you from the crop of corny "sheep jokes" and "clone jokes" that have suddenly surfaced. There have, however, been a lot of good ideas on the benefit of having a clone of oneself. One I like is that I stay home to watch a movie and eat junk food while my clone goes out to give a speech, or better still, your clone gets to listen to a speech. OK, no more of that.
Indeed, this period, in addition to giving fodder to joke writers, brings with it many more serious responsibilities. Recently, I overheard a commentator say, "Some odysseys are measured not by travel across space but by a deepening of the soul."
I think that scientific discovery in general has an element of this "soul deepening." Perhaps that is why many choose to engage in it. However, few scientific efforts could be more evocative of that feeling than work with genes, the very essence of life.
Since the discovery in 1944 that genes consist of DNA, and a mere nine years later in 1953 that the structure of DNA is a double helix, the field of gene research has advanced very quickly. By 1972, the first gene was cloned.
In March of 1981, Time Magazine did a feature article on gene-splicing in which they quoted the University of Zurich's Charles Weissmann. Just the year before, Weissmann had become the first scientist to make bacteria produce a facsimile of human interferon. He told Time, "Biology has become as unthinkable without gene-splicing techniques as sending an explorer into the jungle without a compass."
Only nine years after Weissmann's observation, gene therapy was used for the first time in a human. And so in a brief span, new knowledge and understanding led to an ability to develop the necessary techniques and technologies and apply them to manipulate genes.
I think we can agree that this capacity to do something new represents a step beyond being able to discover or establish new knowledge. Thus, despite the fact that all science is contributory, not all science is the same. The ability to create a whole new life beginning with a differentiated cell from an adult sheep is considered by many experts to be a powerful, unprecedented feat.
It differs in a fundamental way, for example, from the recent, and undeniably magnificent, discovery in geoscience that confirmed an asteroid impact in what is now Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico some 65 million years ago. None of us would dispute that both represent exciting new information. The first, however, permits us to do what was, heretofore, undoable. The second confirms what we have long speculated but have been unable to verify. The ability to do something new frequently poses issues that just new information and knowledge-building do not present.
I have titled my remarks today Double Helixes and Double Edged Swords: Cloning and The Conundrum Of Scientific Success because the capacity to clone a mammal from the nucleus of an adult cell presents a real time "double edge" for us to consider. First, there is the excitement of discovering that a once strongly assumed obstacle in fundamental biology--the irreversibility of "differentiated cells"--has fallen in the wake of the "Dolly" success.
The writer, physician, and commentator, Charles Krauthammer, expressed it this way. "What politicians do not understand is that Wilmut discovered not so much a technical trick as a new law of nature." A "new law of nature" seems somewhat of an exaggeration since we have been able to do this with plants and many lower animals. However, it is likely that a whole new chapter in biology will be opened with potential health, medical, and economic benefits. This is one edge of our double-edged sword.
But second, and equally as important, is the knowledge of expanded possibilities opened by this new technique. This new potential may well outstrip or violate society's definition of what constitutes our concept of human individuality, or our acceptance of certain human interventions.
The new-found capability to clone a "Dolly," carries a more complex societal context than discovering the double helix design of DNA, and thus demands extensive public discussion and debate. The ability to do this new cloning requires us to examine and discuss our society's philosophical and religious underpinnings, its legal definitions and ethical values--all in relation to the application of this revolutionary new skill. I believe that it also suggests to individuals the need to examine their own personal values and beliefs in light of the possibilities.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that either knowledge or an ability to apply that knowledge through a new process is inherently either good or bad. I am only suggesting that there is a moral responsibility that accompanies the use of all knowledge. That responsibility rests with society as a whole, and not just the performers of the research.
The exercise of this responsibility is as important to society as our right and freedom to inquire, gain new knowledge, and create something new from it. In turn, the fulfillment of this responsibility should not be misconstrued as either temerity or inhibition. Instead it should be understood as reasoned judgment.
In the long run, knowledge and technology should be humankind's servants. They are the products of our creativity and our toil. They are not in any way substitutes for values, ethics, and morality. In fact, our success in managing knowledge and technology to solve a vast array of societal problems is directly dependent on this societal context of values and ethics.
It was the writer and social commentator Will Durant who said, "We...repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purpose." Perhaps even more so in our own time, we have a seemingly endless capability to do new things, but often without questioning, explicitly at least, "to what end."
President Clinton's request for guidance from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission following the "cloning" announcement from Scotland tried, I believe, to address this issue. Harold Shapiro, chairman of the Bioethics Commission's and also president of Princeton University, said of his task to provide a report by May 26th to the White House, "My aim is to reach a conclusion that people will respect, even if they don't agree."
In the 1970s, we had a similar debate about the then-new and quite revolutionary capability to do Recombinant DNA research. As it turns out, many of the ethical, moral, and legal issues that emerged then are resurfacing in their same unresolved form now. That debate 25 years ago provides us with some important lessons, lessons about what we did right and also lessons about the public process that remain unlearned to this day.
What stands as a shining example of the Recombinant DNA debate was the initiative taken by members of the scientific community to examine among themselves the risks and benefits posed by the new technique. The result was an agreement to ask the government to adopt a set of guidelines for the performance of the research. This studied and responsible action was also moved along by serious discussions in Congress to limit or outlaw the research. The actions on the part of the researchers served to deter unnecessary federal restrictions or an outright ban on the research.
Nevertheless, two components that were missing in the 70s are still missing today. First, we need strong public understanding of the science involved. And second, we need a routine engagement of the research community in public dialogue with the electorate on both the science and the societal context in which it exists. And this communication is not a one-way process in which the scientists talk and teach and the public listens and learns. On the contrary, the research community has as much or more to learn from the public as it has to offer that public.
There is a social, political, and philosophical context in which all activity takes place in a society. Without an understanding and appreciation of that context, many actions are misunderstood. And the process of dialogue that is needed cannot be learned in an overnight primer. It must be part of our public habit, firmly in place and functioning with trust on both sides. This framework is not well established in America, or perhaps in any other part of the world, and it will take time and strong initiative on the part of the scientific community to help develop it. Issues like the new cloning capability expose the problems and dangers of minimal communication.
In speaking to groups of scientists and engineers over the last year, I have pointed out that NSF (National Science Foundation) surveys show a strong public interest in science and appreciation of its value. Nevertheless, in those same surveys the public indicates little confidence in its ability to understand that same science. I have repeatedly pointed out that this disconnect perhaps says more about us, the science community, than it does about the public.
In this light, I have referred to an additional role and responsibility that scientists need to consider. I have used the term "civic scientist" to describe a panoply of activities that brings scientists into routine connection with their communities, and even other parts of their campuses.
In speaking of the sociology of university campuses, not only are the sciences and the humanities largely separated from each other but campuses are further fragmented by discipline and department. The biologists and the physicists may not even know each other at many institutions.
Over the last half century, scientists in America, and I believe in other countries as well, have been accustomed to working in the relative isolation of their universities and laboratories, immersed in the autonomy of their own work. At the same time, the world outside has been increasingly defined in scientific and technological terms.
The American public does not have good grounding for the imminent debate about cloning. And the science and engineering community does not have good grounding in dialogue with the public about the science or its societal implications and concerns. This most recent scientific discovery of fundamental importance has pointed a laser beam on these companion deficiencies. As a civilization, we cannot afford for this situation to continue.
Geneticist Maxine Singer, who is currently the President of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, pointed this out in an interview several years ago. She said, "On any day, if you look at the front page [of the newspaper], half the stories usually have a technical or scientific component in them. A society that turns its back on science has to face decay and deterioration."
I find it worrisome when I hear a frustrated colleague say that it is simply unrealistic to expect the public to understand the complexities of science and technology. I think my own view is somewhat different. I am not convinced that scientific and technological literacy or the ability to make judgments about science and technology depends on specific detailed knowledge. Even Ph.D. scientists and engineers can not have grounding in every field. What is needed is the ability to probe, to question, to grasp concepts, and to develop some confidence in the consensus that forms in the research community about a discovery or advance.
Knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosome is not the point. However, most people should understand that they get DNA from their parents. They should know that DNA carries inherited information that determines many of their mental and physical capabilities and vulnerabilities. As one astute fifth grader put it, ...genetics explains why you look like your father, and if you don't, why you should.
What then am I trying to convey about the term scientific and technological literacy? I believe that such literacy for the electorate is not an ever-increasing body of factual detail but rather an ever-expanding universe of understanding. The ability to grasp concepts, principles, and processes is a path to holistic comprehension. The accumulation of mere facts is like being able to recite the alphabet but not knowing that words come from that same collection of characters.
For over a decade, NSF has sponsored a National Science and Technology Week. One of our primary activities is to develop materials about the effective teaching and learning of science, mathematics and technology. The materials-- distributed to students, parents, teachers, libraries, and communities--provide the opportunity to experience science through "hands-on" learning. To refer back to the metaphor of reciting the alphabet versus understanding how words are formed, this "discovery process" moves learners down the path to whole words.
You know, we scientists often find it hard to abandon the detail of our disciplined work. However, in order to bridge the gap between science and society, and between the scientist and the public, we as scientists will have to help in that effort by moving to a different level of discourse. We can begin to depict our knowledge more in terms of the process by which we learn and discover. That process is the demanding, testing, skeptical regimen of the scientific method. We can portray our work in the way that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow suggested when he said, "Science is the refusal to believe on the basis of hope,"
Our challenge as a community is to learn that the detail and obscure terminology of our fields is not the path to public understanding of our work. And as a group, we will need to incorporate analogy and even metaphor as tools for helping others to understand. It is, I believe, in this way that we can increase public confidence in absorbing and knowing science. I should add that I particularly include myself in these lessons and instructions. I can tell you from experience that it is much easier to suggest this to others than to successfully carry it off yourself.
A society always moving forward along the uncertain path of discovery should also recognize that most frequently it is the successes that generate the problems, because successes give you choices. There's an old saying that today's problems come from yesterday's solutions.
The choices that emerge with scientific discoveries such as the recent cloning capability are usually ethical and moral choices. Part of the scientist's responsibility in society is not only to engage in the discovery--our unique ability--but also to engage ourselves as civic scientists in our larger communities. We need to examine and explore the societal framework of values that help us to understand the use and misuse of our ever greater knowledge.
In 1956, the scientist and historian of science, Jacob Bronowski, wrote in his seminal text, Science and Human Values, that, "...values are not rules, but are those deeper illuminations in whose light justice and injustice, good and evil, means and ends are seen in fearful sharpness of outline."
Although the cloning of Dolly has already been called the discovery of the century, we should recognize that just in the last year we have had to consider the possibility of microbial life-forms in the now famous Mars-rock, and also the possibility of planets beyond our solar system. What we can discern from this diverse new knowledge is humankind's ability to accelerate the discovery clock beyond our wildest predictions.
As a society, let us not be naysayers about new knowledge, nor timid about technology. But let us not shirk the societal responsibility for their use and misuse. For centuries, we have used fire to warm ourselves, cook our food, but also to harm our enemies. We can and have isolated bacteria for both medical benefit and lethal destruction. This seems to be the process of civilization. Stopping that process is not an option, but we must direct it, as best we can, always toward beneficial ends. And so, in many ways it is not the double helix that presents a double-edged sword, but rather human life itself.