Scientists call for genetic freeze

January 20, 1995

Commercial interests are preventing geneticists from warning the public of the dangers of genetically engineered organisms, a group of scientists has warned.

They have appealed to scientists to sign a statement calling for consideration of a moratorium on commercial releases of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The statement also calls for universities to reduce their emphasis on producing gene manipulators and instead produce life science graduates with a broader understanding of biology.

The group's United Kingdom members include Brian Goodwin, professor of biology at the Open University, Jacqueline McGlade, professor and specialist in ecosystems at the department of biological sciences at Warwick University and Peter Saunders, biomathematician at King's College, London.

Launching the statement in London last week, Mae-Wan Ho, of the Open University, said: "We want to mobilise scientific support to say that there is something wrong with genetic engineering".

The statement says that the public is justified in its "scientifically well-founded" concern about biotechnology.

"Many of the claims for benefits by the proponents of biotechnology have been exaggerated or have not been based on adequate scientific foundations," the statement says. Scientists have lost restraint because they are now over-familiar with the organisms.

Biotechnology is criticised in the statement for safety, ecological, health and financial reasons.

Professor Goodwin said: "I am not knocking biotechnology per se. We're not knocking the genetic engineering of organisms whose products have been tested and found by the most stringent criteria to be safe and effective. Drug companies have to go through very stringent safety protocols. These are simply not in place for products of biotechnology."

Lewis Wolpert, professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London, reacted to the statement by saying that concerned scientists should only sign it if they were molecular biologists.

"If you are applying science you have an enormous social responsibility to make sure that what you're doing is safe," he said. "Scientists should spell out dangers and difficulties on the basis of their expertise -- but only if they are experts."

The group wants to see international biosafety regulation; national registers of research projects and other activities involving genetic engineering; and resources for studying alternatives to genetic engineering as solutions to world problems.

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