In 1975, some 140 scientists met at the Asilomar resort on California’s rocky Monterey Peninsula to discuss the nascent science of mixing DNA from different organisms.
Until that point, researchers had deliberately not performed the final steps of such experiments, owing to concerns about safety and ethics. Over three days of discussions, the conference attendees agreed to voluntary restrictions on recombinant-DNA research, and drafted a document that listed the potential risks of such experiments and how to carry out the work safely.
The meeting is seen as the first time that science had regulated itself — effectively avoiding government intervention — and assuaged public fears by addressing biosafety concerns head-on.
Today, no scientific controversy is complete without calls for an ‘Asilomar-like’ conference. Until such a conversation has taken place, proponents say, researchers should not proceed with risky propositions.
Debates on artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, geoengineering and the use of gene-editing technology have all referred to Asilomar as a useful model. (Geoengineers went so far as to meet in Asilomar.) This month, a group of scholars, programmers, artists, entrepreneurs and video-game developers published a Biosphere Code to protect people and the planet from the negative impact of computer algorithms — produced after Asilomar-like discussions in Stockholm.
But is Asilomar’s reputation deserved? The invitation-only conference included a handful of journalists and policymakers, but did not cast a wide net outside the scientific community. And in hindsight, many of its safety precautions may have been overkill. As bioethicist Jonathan Moreno puts it: “Asilomar has become a bio-Woodstock in people’s memories, a golden age. People forget how muddy Woodstock was.”
Modern science is muddier still: in a 2008 essay in Nature, even Asilomar organizer Paul Berg admitted that such a conference would be difficult to convene today (P. Berg Nature 455, 290–291; 2008). In 1975, he and his colleagues had yielded to concerns from within their tight-knit community. They could afford to pause their research, having reasonable certainty that the technology would not advance in the meantime.
But like everything else in the twenty-first century, science has become a global affair. An enormous number of researchers have almost unfettered access to information and increasingly easy-to-use tools. As a result, ‘synthetic’ organisms, enhanced influenza viruses and genetically modified human embryos already exist, whether the world is ready for them or not. Even if they are destroyed, the instructions to make them will inevitably make their way onto the Internet — a technology as pervasive and uncontrollable as any biological entity.
“When controversy comes calling, scientists should reach outwards.”
Modern science is also less insular than that of the past, and any single Asilomar conference would probably be lost in the noise. New players have appeared over the past four decades, including a powerful biotechnology industry driven at least in part by profit; the most polarized US government in history, which can turn any new technology into a political weapon; and a mass of religious and activist groups that have flexed their muscles to stop research on embryonic stem cells and genetically modified organisms in their tracks.
Each represents and interacts separately with the general public. And scientists who wish to self-regulate ignore public outcry at their peril: crowd-pleasing politicians passing knee-jerk regulations will hinder scientific progress more than any voluntary moratorium ever could, and their poor understanding might cause collateral damage to related fields.
When controversy comes calling, rather than asking for an Asilomar conference — which, after all, was closed to the public — scientists should reach outwards. Discussions should extend beyond researchers and ethicists to include, or at least broadcast to, the broader public. Proactive engagement with the mass media is key: the most transparent of webcasts is meaningless if only a rarified group of already-interested individuals knows that the meeting is happening.
The most important thing is to communicate the risks and benefits of controversial research in a responsible and transparent way. For embryo editing, for instance, discussions should avoid unhelpful references to the genetically modified humans in the 1997 film Gattaca, or veiled aspersions on the ethical standards of non-Western researchers.
A modern Asilomar might also take advantage of the wide range of expertise and techniques available today. Some advisory bodies, such as the US National Academies’ committee on research that involves enhancing influenza viruses, have had the forethought to include economists and futurists expert in drawing up realistic risk–benefit analyses and scenarios. Other strategies could include a war-game approach similar to the 2001 Dark Winter exercise, in which US media, government officials, health experts and military groups simulated a bioterror attack to anticipate the problems that would arise.
In 1975, the week after the Asilomar conference, actor Telly Savalas — star of the detective programme Kojak — topped the UK music charts with a spoken-word version of If by rock group Bread. The world has moved on since then; science must as well.