Asilomar – A Step Forward

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The recombined DNA made its way through 30 years ago and it allowed one of the most monumental displays of common sense the science world could have ever seen. The possibility of exploring, combining and experimenting with genes brought the scientists to a sudden moment when they had to rise up the question whether what they were doing was ethical or not and if it could have great influence on life on Earth as we know it for so long. In this context of uncertainty a handful of scientists decided to make a stand and to organize the Asilomar conference, a conference never heard before. This conference gathers along scientists, lawyers, health experts, government’s representatives and many more.

            Maybe for the first time in history scientists had the extreme courage to admit that they have to confront themselves and to analyze thoroughly if what they were doing was good or bad. The voluntary moratorium was observed and taken into consideration when we view the storm it created in the science world. On the other way the moratorium created the excellent basis for the conference and also to get enough time to analyze and debate the consequences of every action.

            One of the main concerns from the point of view of the critiques was that such experiments will cause unexpected and hazardous fatalities in the labs. Anyhow it was proved that no such things occurred and the demagogic fears were unrealistic. As this problem has been settled in time, the Asilomar conference was further criticized for not taking into consideration the legal and the ethical side of the problem. As we might see from the moratorium itself issues like these were themselves the cause of the problem, but some might have suggested that they were not the main preoccupation of the scientists. Ignoring on the whole, the negative voices that always appear once in a while to every good deed or intention, the moratorium, it’s lifting up and finally the conference itself was of great benefit.

            The first step was gaining the public trust and approval. As scientists were sometimes afraid to come and confront freely the public society, in this case this kind of approach was beneficial. The fact that the people in general were informed about the discovery and its way of working gave everyone a sense of assuredness and everyone felt secure and trustful. The initiative was successful because the scientists had the courage to rise and issue even against themselves. The important thing was the massive presence of mass-media, nearly 10% of the participants at the conference. This thing gave a sense of comfort and of transparency as the members themselves could criticize or approve what was going on. The president of Princeton University, Harold Shapiro underlined that “There are no important risks that scientists alone can assess. Scientists can make a great contribution, but they can’t decide alone.” (Barinaga 1585) Probably Asilomar was the unique moment when scientists were not marching alone.

            Nowadays another important issue is raising and we have to determine if we can apply the same strategy. The problems that we deal with today in the field of science are believed not to be able to be handed in the same way as the recombinant DNA was. The lack of success of such approach might have multiple causes. Firstly, the news of recombinant DNA was such a powerful shock that something had to be done and everyone needed to reach a compromise. Now all the issues are on the table and as a second part in this process we can see the economic interests, not the scientific ones. Nowadays, it is not about the fact that science had to move on and people have to reach a consensus for everyone’s sake. In today’s world, whether the research on some issue is done or not depends exclusively on the political decisions of the moment, on the pressure put on the decisional factors, not on the wellness of people.

            Asilomar was great for its times and it still remains the manifest of a free world where we can get along for our own sake. Even if today admitting a problem and asking for an all-together solution seem like a fantasy, the society should again return to the basics of its common-sense and skip the unwanted political and economical reasons and interests. Maybe the public as it is seen today should not give such importance to the materialistic and egotistic side of the story. Science is not the bad ugly monster; it is rather an area of interest led by people that can eventually lead us to a better life, to a better future. Stand-ups like the one 30 years ago, should be taken into consideration regularly and the public should be informed about the new progress in life. Probably there is also the mistrust of the scientists towards making public their work and discovery, but this is the only way for humanity to stay together. Most likely the problem is overcoming the natural fear of the other. But as we can see, we are not afraid of the future as we are afraid of our fellow beings. Another Asilomar-like conference could mean the turning of the science world to where it has emerged, the people.

Sources:

Barinaga, Marcia. “Asilomar Revisited: Lessons for Today?” Science, Volume 287, Number 5458. March 3, 2000: 1585.

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