Dr. Neal Lane


9th International Conference

on Genes, Gene Families, and Isozymes

April 14, 1997


I am extremely pleased and honored to be here at this 9th International Congress on Genes, Gene Families, and Isozymes. It's very generous of you to include an atomic physicist serving for a few years as a government bureaucrat on the program. I also want to say that we are all honored to have the congress in America for the first time.

And what an historic moment to hold a "gene" conference. A famous sheep named Dolly seems to have written a whole new page in the history of our knowledge about genes. I promise to save you from the Washington crop of corny "sheep jokes" and "clone jokes" that have suddenly surfaced.

There have been a lot of good ideas on the benefit of having a clone of oneself. My favorite was that you stay home to watch TV and eat junk food while your clone goes out to give a speech.

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 we can all agree that scientific discovery in general has an element of this "soul deepening." Perhaps that is why we engage in it so completely. 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. In 1972, the first gene was cloned and by 1990 gene therapy was used in a human. And so in a brief time-span, our 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 also 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 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 the Caribbean 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 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 media excitement of discovering that a once strongly assumed obstacle in fundamental biology--the irreversibility of "differentiated cells"--has presumably fallen in the wake of the "Dolly" success. The writer, physician, and commentator, Charles Krauthammer, explained 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, a new chapter in biology may well 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 humanness and individuality, or our acceptability of certain human interventions.

The new-found capability to clone a "Dolly," especially given the public attention it has gained 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 humankind and 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.

If we revisit for a moment the 1970s debate about Recombinant DNA research, we see that many 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. This process of dialogue 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 this country 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, there is low confidence on the part of the public in its understanding of 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.

A friend of mine recently told a story about a meeting she'd had with a member of U. S. Congress about the importance of funding for academic research. She did not reveal the member's name, but did reveal his response to her arguments. He said something to the effect of: "I spent four years on a university campus and you didn't convince me then that research matters. How can you expect me to help you now?" I imagine that many, but I hope not most, of us have encountered similar responses at one time or another.

Over the last half century, we scientists in America, and I believe in other countries as well, have been accustomed to working in the relative isolation of our universities and laboratories, immersed in the autonomy of our 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 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 Foundation 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 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 PhD scientists can not have grounding in all areas of science. What is needed is the ability to probe and question.

Knowing the difference between a gene and a chromosone 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 and confidence. The accumulation of mere fact is like being able to recite the alphabet but not knowing that words come from that same collection of characters.

As scientists, it is hard to abandon the detail of our disciplined work and, instead, depict our knowledge by the very process by which we learn and discover--the demanding, testing, skeptical regimen of the scientific method. And we 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.

All of you recognize from your own work that a society always moving forward into the unknown path of discovery must realize that it is the successes that generate the problems, because successes give you choices. In both the present and the future, we all depend on the knowledge and capability of citizens to understand the issues and choices that emerge with new scientific discovery. 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 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.

Let us, of course, 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 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, through our voices and our work always toward beneficial ends. And so, it is not really the double helix that presents a double-edged sword, but rather human life itself.

Thank you for allowing me to share a few thoughts.

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