By Lisa Seachrist
WASHINGTON -- A cloned sheep named Dolly certainly spurred politicians, right-to-life advocates and journalists worldwide into action, but also recharged the debate over scientific freedom and responsibility.
This week a panel of scientists and public policy experts convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science examined that debate in the context of the questions raised by the appearance of Dolly and the potential to clone human beings.
"I want to try to squelch the myth that scientists are not concerned with what they are doing," said Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "Ever since the Second World War, scientists have been concerned about the implications and conduct of their work. One of our main responses is that people should know what we are doing."
The panel agreed that one of the most important ways to prepare the public for scientific developments is for the scientific community to keep the public well aware of its progress.
In addition, Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said scientists from academia and industry need to be actively engaged in discussing the issues that scientific research raises.
"It is clear that we need to give the public a much better understanding of the research that is going on," Feldbaum said. "It is also appropriate that scientists and the biotechnology industry have some connections with organizations like the National Bioethics Advisory Commission."
Public Concerns Not Always Obvious
Nevertheless, the panel also agreed that the nature of science is to encounter surprising results and that makes it difficult to prepare for every new development.
Colin Stewart, director of the cancer and developmental biology laboratory at the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health, pointed out that even when the information is present, scientists can overlook a likely development.
"Apart from all the work that had been done cloning plants and the fact that all the way we had been attempting to clone animals," Stewart said, "we deluded ourselves into believing that cloning an animal couldn't succeed. As a result, the science is running ahead of the ethics here."
Stewart's feeling that science is running ahead of the ethics has prompted attempts at legislating a ban on human cloning. Currently, there is a voluntary ban on cloning human beings in effect. Feldbaum noted that the biotechnology community has had a good track record on following voluntary bans, citing the ban in the 1970's on cloning genes until the safety issues could be assessed.
Nevertheless, fear that economics may lead someone to disregard the ban prompted the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to recommend to the president that the ban be written into law.
Such a law, which is already in effect in countries like Great Britain and Germany, would be a monumental step in regulating research in the United States, where even the most contentious research on human embryos is permitted as long as the researchers don't use federal funds.
"There is a profound difference between North American and European history," said Ian Wilmut, a scientist at the Roslin Institute, in Edinburgh, Scotland, and "father" of Dolly. "To me, it doesn't seem there is a problem with imposing a law that [some research] is socially unacceptable regardless of who does it."
Singer acknowledged Wilmut's point, noting that the United States regards its freedoms highly.
"We do have a strong tradition of scientific freedom in this country," Singer said. "We must step very carefully when we apply breaks to this or any freedom."
Wolfram Shoett, counselor for science, technology and the environment at the German Embassy, noted that Germans had firsthand experience with the hazards of restrictive laws and the merits of sunset clauses.
"In Germany in the early '80's, we had a law that detrimentally affected our biotechnology industry," Shoett said. "Public opinion about genetic engineering pharmaceuticals has changed. It is important to have a built-in mechanism for changing laws that are detrimental to research."
"I find it increasingly unrealistic for scientists to argue that their area and their area alone should be beyond the scope of federal regulation," Feldbaum said. "Legislators just don't see it that way."
Unfortunately, Feldbaum noted that legislators come ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of scientific research. Feldbaum said that in speaking with a number of focus groups, BIO found that when ordinary people were asked who should make decisions concerning ethics and medical research, by and large the only authority that they trusted was the Supreme Court.
"The bad news is the Supreme Court doesn't have the jurisdiction," Feldbaum said. "The good news is that at least they trust some government entity."
Any Law Should Protect Research
The panel was in broad agreement that any legislation likely to deal with human cloning will need to be very carefully drafted to preserve research interests.
President Clinton has sent legislative language to Congress that imposes civil penalties on anyone who would clone a human being, but it has yet to be officially introduced into either the House or Senate.
That language specifically notes that legitimate research would not be affected by a ban on cloning human beings. But Gillian Woollett, assistant vice president of biologics and biotechnology for the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Researchers of America, said the fact that the language has three different definitions of somatic cell causes confusion. Feldbaum said the president's bill doesn't preempt state laws.
"You haven't seen a slippery slope of research regulations until you have seen the states take a crack at regulating this," Feldbaum said. He pointed to a Florida proposal that would have banned the cloning of all human DNA.
"If there isn't a sufficient national response to this issue, you will see a lot of misinformed legislation in the states," he added. *