Although research in molecular biology has yet to have a major impact on the prevention and treatment of disease, a backlash already seems to be developing. Critics believe that they can channel contemporary biology to fit their own conception of appropriate research. However, the traditional pact between society and scientist, in which the scientist is given responsibility for determining the direction of research, is necessary if basic science is to be effective. This does not mean that society is at the mercy of science, but rather that society should not attempt to prescribe its directions.
One advance has been the development of the process called recombinant DNA research. Because the method allows genes from any species to be put into a common type of bacterium, there is a theoretical possibility of hazard. But if safety were the most important consideration about recombinant DNA, then we might expect the debate to focus on the hazards of recombinant DNA experiments. Instead, many discussions soon turn to a consideration of genetic engineering.
Genetic engineering present perplexing problems: who is to decide, and how shall they decide what genes are malfunctional? These are moral decisions and therefore highly subjective. Although genetic engineering is not the same as recombinant DNA research, the two are closely linked. Because recombinant DNA work is bringing closer the discovery of new medical treatments and is likely to bring other new capabilities, why is there so much focus on genetic engineering?
Rather than seeing in molecular biology the same complex mixtures of appropriate and inappropriate applications that characterize all powerful sciences, many people have allowed a negative catch phrase, “genetic engineering,” to dominate discussions. People worry that if the possibility of curing a genetic defect by gene therapy should ever become a reality, the inevitable result would be “people made to order.”