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Biotechnics and Society.

Scientific and technological developments these days invariably inspire a rhetoric of revolution, be it a computer revolution, a robotics revolution, or a biotechnology revolution. True to form, current research in genetics and biotechnology has been welcomed in similar terms. The veritable flood of books that have popularized, eulogized, and criticized this work all describe a scientific revolution unlike anything ever before attempted - a genetics revolution that will transform our relationship to nature, a biotechnic revolution that will transform industrial processes, and an industrial revolution that will change the very way we think about the world.

Revolutions are clearly both seductive and scary. And the idea that life can be mapped, manipulated, and marketed brings out the profound ambivalence with which Americans view dramatic scientific discoveries - as both promising and threatening, a source of hope and a cause for fear. Emphasizing the revolutionary potential of genetics, science journalists, ethicists, sociologists, and historians provide a window on these ambivalent attitudes. Recent books on biotechnology are filled with descriptions of amazing breakthroughs, remarkable applications, and extravagant claims. But they also express very diverse visions of science and its relationship to society.

At one extreme are the popularizations, usually written by scientists or science journalists who explain the wonders of the scientific revolution in genetics, and acclaim its potential contribution to health, economic well-being, and social progress. Promotional in tone, popularizations are premised on the assumption that science is a value-free, neutral, knowledge-driven activity; that scientific knowledge will lead to technological applications; and that these in turn will drive social and cultural change. Their authors are technological determinists. They admit that there are social choices, and that scientific information can be used for good and for evil, but popularizers regard technology as an autonomous and inexorable force, determining or at the very least shaping social choice.

In sharp contrast to the popular books on biotechnology are policy analyses often written by critics who believe that science and technology are driven by political and economic interests. Debunking the notion of neutrality, they focus on the relationship of science to power, and view the potential for misusing scientific information as intrinsic to the science itself. Thus, they tend to focus more on the problematic potential of biotechnology than on its beneficial applications.

These extremes are clearly demonstrated by the two books under review: Thomas E Lee's The Human Genome Project, and Sheldon Krimsky's Biotechnics and Society. Both are seeking to document what they view as a significant scientific revolution. Yet, their interpretations of the meaning of this revolution could not differ more.

Lee is a geneticist and a skilled science popularizer. Addressing the lay reader, he presents a brief history of the Human Genome Project from its origins in nineteenth-century evolutionary biology, to the Watson-crick collaboration, to the administrative development of the contemporary genome initiative. Lee writes with awe about the "miracle of molecular biology," the "remarkable" and "revolutionary" work of "brilliant scientists," driven by their "search for knowledge." He sees the history of science as "a rich mosaic of individual lines of inquiry often with no apparent end beyond knowledge of and for itself." This research, he believes, will soon lead to the control and prevention of disease, and he welcomes the dawning of an "age of genetic therapy."

Lee warns us, however, that science also "uncovers secrets that can be used for good or for ill. " There are, indeed, "shadows cast upon the bright future." He describes disputes over the initiation of the Human Genome Project, the appropriation of funds, the priorities of research policy, and the best methods for assuring scientific progress. These disputes - all internal to the scientific community - reflect conflicting assumptions about the relative value of large- versus small-scale science. Only as an after thought does Lee address the relationship of genetics to the larger social contex, pointing out the potential abuses of scientific information; genetic screening, he warns, can lead to discrimination, unnecessary abortion, and even eugenic policies. But he concludes with a reassuring message, observing that unethical practices in science "are notable only as exceptions to the rule, " and that science is marked by extraordinary integrity and generosity. The only question is whether we, as a society, have the wisdom to use science for beneficent ends.

Krimsky's book reflects a totally different view of science in its relation to society. Krimsky is a philosopher and a policy analyst, and he deals, more broadly than Lee, with diverse biotechnology applications, of which human genetics is just one part. He assumes that science and technology, far from autonomous, are directed by economic and political interests. Insisting that science cannot be separated from its applications, he focuses attention on the industrial exploitation of biotechnologies and their broad social, political, and ethical implications. He develops three themes:

* First, far from a pure, knowledge-driven activity, genetics is intrinsically shaped by its industrial context with all that implies for the commercialization and commodification of science. He explores the issues of patenting, the growth of industry-university relationships, the issues of sharing data, the demands of entrepreneurship, and other economic influences on scientific research.

* Second, he suggests that biotechnology is intrinsically tied to controversial social and environmental questions, especially in its agricultural applications. Krimsky describes biotechnology applications for the improvement of plants and the modifications of animals. Like Lee, he too discusses disputes. But he focuses less on traditional science policy controversies than on public opposition. Thus he describes the disputes over research that involves the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment, and the opposition to research that tampers with natural forms. The use of a genetically engineered bacterium to inhibit ice crystallization (the ice minus experiment) generated bitter controversy. So too did the development of bovine and human growth hormones, the creation of herbicide-resistant plants, and the experiments on transgenic animals. In describing such disputes, Krimsky calls attention to scientific uncertainties about ecosystem effects. Unlike Lee, he gives rather little attention to the beneficial potential of these technologies, though they may ultimately help to minimize the use of pesticides and to expand agricultural productivity.

* The third theme addressed by Krimsky is that applications of biotechnology will require social controls. Examining the Human Genome Project, he focuses less on the science and its potential medical benefits - the issues of concern to Lee - than on the ethical debates over gene therapy and genetic engineering. Krimsky is far more pessimistic than Lee, arguing that the intrinsic nature of genetic research challenges the traditional ways of addressing industrial externalities, and stretches the regulatory system to its limits. While Lee emphasizes the integrity of scientists, suggesting their ability to regulate themselves, Krimsky seeks a regulatory system that will do more than act in response to crisis, that will try to predict and prevent untoward events.

Despite the differences in their approach to science, both Lee and Krimsky are constrained by the rhetoric of scientific revolution. Focusing on the revolutionary impacts of the science, be they for good or for bad, neither is able to deal with the extraordinary complexity in the relationships between science and society. Biotechnology involves the interaction of scientific knowledge with medical and agricultural needs, industrial and organizational constraints, funding priorities, public opinion, the career stakes and constraints of scientists, and the political exigencies of the regulatory system. Proper understanding of revolutionary science must be placed in this complex interactive perspective.

The significance of scientific advances in genetics must also be understood in the context of changing public perceptions of science. There is every indication that the public has reservations these days about the values of scientific revolutions and is cynical about scientific hype. In particular, people have been confronted with revolutionary rhetoric about biotechnology breakthroughs since the mid-70s, when geneticists publicized the "revolutionary potential" of interferon as a "magic bullet" for everything from cancer to the common cold. They have heard the Human Genome Project called the Book of Man, or the Quest for the holy Grail. And they have read media reports of amazing discoveries and miracle cures.

In the age of Big Science, scientific entrepreneurs seek a public image, believing this to be essential to assure the funding of costly, large-scale research. Thus, they seek to project the dramatic aspects of their research and to hype its revolutionary applications. But as in political revolutions, people expect that the revolutionary promises of science will have a payoff, and, as in politics, when promises fail, there is a cost just as the unmet expectations of political revolutions erode the authority of revolutionary regimes, so the exaggerated promises of science erode moral authority and its credibility. By 1982 the press demoted interferon from "wonder drug to wallflower." Today, the revolution in biotechnology has become a "gene dream" - less an economic panacea than an environmental threat And the optimistic promises of genetic therapies are countered by growing worries about the social and even eugenic abuses of genetic predictions. The media are increasingly cynical in their response to revolutionary claims. As one writer put it, "They're all grinding the same axe, from breakthrough university to wonder pharmaceuticals, to the National Institute of Nearly Cured Disease." And another compares revolutions in science to "the half-life of an average teenage crush." It is hardly surprising that books and articles on biotechnology swing from celebration of progress to warnings of peril, from stories of miracles to visions of apocalypse.

This is not to underestimate the advances in biotechnology and genetics addressed by Krimsky and Lee. But their polarized approach suggests that the public image of a truly important science might be better enhanced by a less revolutionary rhetoric. For a meaningful interpretation must convey, not the wonders of science, but the complex relationships between scientific advances and the social forces that shape the direction of science and determine its consequences.
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Author:Nelkin, Dorothy
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:The Human Genome Project.
Next Article:Bioethics and Secular Humanism: The Search for a Common Morality.

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