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Testing possible safe strains on myself


Scientists and social responsibility
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Well, this period where one was trying to get... the science going because one realised that this was the important thing for solving many of the problems in biology, was I think, difficult all over the world, and I spent an inordinate amount of time working in the field and also trying to change things. In this country they set up a committee called the Genetic Manipulation Committee, it had lots of representatives, and we got a workable system. But one of the things that became perfectly obvious after all of this had got established was that no one actually believed it was dangerous. And it is very difficult to get people to play at being safe when they know it's... they can't... they cannot see what would come out of this. I mean, everybody knows that if you work with smallpox virus you can get it, or the AIDs virus, you can get it. There have been laboratory infections. But to say that this... this DNA cloned from this organism is dangerous was actually beyond scientific belief. Many of the objections to this... there were realistic things which covered what we could call the workforce in the laboratory. And in fact we chose actually to push everything in that direction because that was something tangible and you could actually get... get moving in that field.

Well, what I thought was very difficult to deal with is something that I think comes up with science in general and is impossible, namely the disaster scenarios, the catastrophe scenarios. Someone like Chargaff came out and said: ‘You are tampering with evolution and we don't know what's going to happen’. Now, I mean, how on earth can you ask scientists to be responsible for something that might happen 10 million years in the future? I mean, this is ludicrous, people can't actually be responsible for something that will happen next month. But the whole idea that we should say, yes, we can see that if we do this there is a possibility, however small, as they put it, that in 10 million years we humans will be supplanted by cats and therefore we'd better not do it. This... this is just not the way to deal with the world, or with science, for that matter. It also had very complicated issues about the so-called responsibility of scientists, which I've never believed. I think that what people should do is in fact to act as in fact good social... people, as individuals, but as a group scientists seem to me to not to have some special social responsibility. And of course that has... came from the atom bomb. But in studying the history there, once you open Pandora's Box, so the argument goes, then everything gets let loose. Therefore the argument is never let the scientists open Pandora's Box. That is, kill it in the laboratories. Because once it's out, society is... is incompetent or unable to deal with it. But that means that... I mean, I once gave a lecture on the social irresponsibility of society, because that seems to me to be the issue behind that. The people, as I said in this lecture, the people polluting the universe aren't the scientists but everybody's mother in the audience, you know, with detergents and so on. And how does everybody's mother get hold of detergents? That's because there are companies who manufacture this, and of course it is a possibility that for the chap that first synthesised dodecyl... dodecyl sulphonate, had he had the sense to envisage in the future that there would be 10 million people putting this in their dishwashers, he might have said, well I'd better not publish this, and better not let it out because I can see, you know, a hundred years' time everything will...will be... will be wrong. So I mean, this kind of... this kind of thing just makes it ludicrous. And the important thing is that science I think is neutral in that sense. If the box can be opened it will be opened. If not now, then later. If not by us, then by other people. And the only thing to do is to forbid the search for any new knowledge. You can't just forbid the search for that kind of new knowledge and not for any other kind, because it's part of the process. Now it seems to me that people had better get on to the real question, which is what do you do with it once you get it? And it's not up to us to say, we are to blame, mea culpa, we'll stop doing this, we promise we'll never clone another gene. Because I mean, you would lose a lot from this, as we've now known.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Genetic Manipulation Committee

Duration: 6 minutes, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010