Casting Call for “The Public”

Backstage Decisions, Front-stage Experts: Part 2

In this week’s installment: When faced with the scientific possibilities and public hazards of emerging recombinant DNA technology, 1970s molecular biologists are forced to navigate the contentious boundaries between science, government and the public.

Didn’t catch part 1? Click here for the previous installment!

A U.S. military research satellite lands outside of dusty Piedmont, Arizona, after collecting samples from space to develop bio-weapons. When military officials arrive to retrieve the satellite, they realize that everyone, except for an old man and a newborn, are dead. The first to the scene die shortly after. The research satellite is later identified to be contaminated with an extra-terrestrial microorganism. Michael Crichton’s science-fiction novel The Andromeda Strain (1969) tells the story of a group of scientists trying to control the outbreak of these microorganisms before they spread and threaten the safety of other communities.

Films and novels like these have shaped culture by instilling values in their audiences and sparking critical conversations around the risks and misuse of science and technology. Three years after the 1971 film adaptation of the novel was released, biocontainment became a dominant frame for mitigating new biological risks. Rather than the threat of microorganisms from outer space, the threat was the use of recombinant DNA technology.

Recombinant DNA (rDNA) is a term used to describe a hybrid DNA molecule constructed in a laboratory environment that contains genetic elements from more than one source. This new technology was exciting to many scientists because DNA molecules previously unseen in nature could be produced in a lab environment. Following the release of the results from the first rDNA experiments, [1] Paul Berg, one of the founding principle investigators, received daily telephone calls requesting a variety of plasmids used for recombinant engineering. Berg described the conversation as follows: “‘What do you want to do? we’d ask. And we’d get a description of some kind of horror experiment and you’d ask the person whether in fact he’d thought about it and you found that he really hadn’t thought about it at all.” [2]

In recognition of growing concerns by scientists working at the lab bench about the potential oncogenicity and pathogenicity of these altered viral strains, Berg convened a small committee of 10 scientists. This committee drafted a letter proposing a moratorium on experiments using rDNA and distributed it through the National Academies of Sciences (NAS) in 1974. [3] 

Vintage black-and-white photo of a scientist pipetting with their mouth


There was fear that labs were not taking the proper precautions given the lack of experience using rDNA. Additionally, the current lab practices raised concerns about the health of laboratory researchers conducting rDNA experiments, which was not an unreasonable fear given that mouth pipetting was still in fashion.


The voluntary moratorium on rDNA experiments by molecular biology researchers was lauded by the scientific community as evidence of the scientific community’s ability to self-regulate. [4][5] The halting of scientific progress and innovation in order to consider their social responsibility for the potential hazards of rDNA experiments had not been done before.

It didn’t last long, however. 

At the behest of Berg’s committee, the NAS organized a larger conference in 1975 to discuss lifting the moratorium and developing guidelines for moving forward with rDNA experimentation. This 4-day conference was held at the Asilomar Conference Center on the windy coast of Central California. The scene is best captured by one of 16 reporters who managed to get into the conference, Michael Rogers from Rolling Stone: “Sandwiched between pool and ping-pong tables, researchers meet for the first time in months, and even in the middle of an overwaxed linoleum floor, their discussions suggest both the vitality of small boys with new chemistry sets and the electricity of back yard gossip. The excitement is unmistakable. Clearly these people think they are onto something”. [2]

During the 1975 Asilomar conference, 140 scientists debated the ethics of genetic manipulation. At the time, scientists held conflicting opinions about whether or not to extend the moratorium. Ultimately, the excitement over what experiments could be done with this new technology won over, and the moratorium was lifted with a conditional set of safety recommendations. The goal of these safety recommendations was to ensure that the products of rDNA experiments would remain in the lab. As South African biologist Sydney Brenner put it, “What I would like to do and what certainly seems incumbent to me, is to erect the highest barriers possible between my laboratory, where the work is performed, and the people outside.” [2] As the moratorium was lifted, new barriers were created and old ones were maintained: new biocontainment barriers were raised to keep genetically altered strains inside the lab, and social barriers to keep the publics, politicians and reporters from governing the trajectory of science were reinforced.

At Asilomar, the molecular biologists debated the interference of legislation and the spread of misinformation by journalists. The general ethos of self-regulation was to protect the autonomy and legitimacy of science by creating norms and rules. This was not so easy, however; as one scientist at Asilomar put it, “Here we are, sitting in a chapel, next to the ocean, huddled around a forbidden tree, trying to create some new Commandments–and there’s no goddam Moses in sight.” [2] Part of the public concern was that by tampering with DNA, scientists were “playing God” — and as another scientist told one of the reporters at Asilomar, “Nature does not need to be legislated. But playing God does.” [2] On the one hand, scientists favored some rule-making. “Legislation,” said one experimenter, “is inevitable. I can’t believe that we’ll be allowed to continue to control ourselves. But something that could set back the progress of science even more than legislation is if, in a few years, there’s a sudden epidemic around Stanford, say, or Cold Spring Harbor.” [2] Others felt differently. Berg explained to the audience of scientists that “If our recommendation looks self-serving, we will run the risk of having standards imposed. We must start high and work down. We can’t say that 150 scientists spent four days at Asilomar and all of them agreed that there was a hazard—and they still couldn’t come up with a single suggestion. That’s telling the government to do it for us.” At this, James Watson, responded: “We can tell them they couldn’t do it either!” [2]

The scientists at the meeting also felt uneasy about the way these issues would be reported by the press and at first did not allow reporters to attend. A writer from Washington told the conference organizers, “A secret international meeting of molecular biologists to discuss biohazards? If the press isn’t allowed, I’ll guarantee you nightmare stories.” [2] For example, it was unclear whether the journalists in attendance should be allowed to record. As one reporter put it, after attendees voted, “the press was permitted their recording equipment. But it is not, by any means, yet permitted any real welcome.” [2] These boundaries of contention, between science and the state, and between science and the public, point to the deeper issue that this series wants to make explicit. Presently, much like the struggle to control an outer space microorganism in The Andromeda Strain, efforts to control how new biotechnologies are used and to what end are, by default, led by scientists. The complexity of the issue was well captured by Senator Ted Kennedy who commented, “It was commendable that scientists attempted to think through the social consequences of their work. It was commendable, but it was inadequate. It was inadequate because scientists alone decided to impose the moratorium and scientists alone decided to lift it. Yet the factors under consideration extend far beyond their technical competence. In fact they were making public policy. And they were making it in private.” [6]

History reveals dynamic fluctuations in public excitement and hostility towards new scientific findings and technologies. The ebb and flow of how the public views the value, meaning and usefulness of science is useful for understanding why and how organizations responded in the way they did. Following the release of the NIH guidelines on containment strategies for rDNA, public discourse evolved about the lack of transparency in conversations regarding this new technology, and engagement with the various public stakeholders during the process of decision-making.

There is a growing understanding of the social importance of scientific and technological knowledge to the U.S. economy, health and wellness, and the environment. Because of this, it is imperative that we acknowledge how boundary making between scientists and the public, and not acknowledging the experiences and knowledge of historically disadvantaged populations, restricts the types of questions being asked of new technologies and their uses. Despite these limitations, the Asilomar meeting, or at least the memory of it, seems to remain a salient model for later scientists trying to self-govern. In the next post, we explore how the 1975 Asilomar has been remembered by scientists and its impact on education and the future governance strategies of new technologies.

Click here for the next part!

Click here for the entire series!

[1] Jackson, D. A., Symons, R. H., & Berg, P. (1972). Biochemical method for inserting new genetic information into DNA of Simian Virus 40: circular SV40 DNA molecules containing lambda phage genes and the galactose operon of Escherichia coli. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 69(10), 2904-2909.

[2] Rogers, M. (1975). The Pandora’s Box Conference. Rolling Stone, 28-40.

[3] Berg, P., et al (1974). Potential biohazards of recombinant DNA molecules. Science, 185(4148), 303.

[4] National Academy of Sciences. (1977). Research With Recombinant DNA: An Academy Forum, March 7-9, 1977. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[5] Gisler, P., & Kurath, M. (2011). Paradise lost?‘‘Science’’and ‘‘the public’’after Asilomar. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 36(2), 213-243.

[6] Culliton, B. J. (1975). Kennedy: pushing for more public input in research.

Santiago Molina (he/they) is a sociologist and proud dog dad living in New Orleans. They research how social orders are (re)produced alongside the development of new genetic technologies. They also obsess constantly over their house plants and enjoy a good video game.

Gordon Pherribo (he/him) is a Black Queer microbiologist living in Oakland, CA. He was raised in New Jersey and has a deep fondness for nature and wildlife. His research interests explore both science culture in doctoral training programs and nutrient interactions in microbial communities.