The U. S. scientific community is sensitive to the political climate because the federal government finances a large proportion of research. In addition to budgetary powers, political leaders exercise dominion over research programs through rule and law-making activities. Despite previous controversies, the scientific community has both served and been generally well supported by both political parties. However, emerging situations have alarmed scientists enough to prompt some opinion leaders to call for more active engagement with the general public along with reconsidering how researchers have gone about their work (1, 2). Apprehensive about the intentions of politicians, scientists are awakening to the possibility much of the taxpaying public does not understand what they do. Will the traditionally reliable platitude about research and jobs (2) – a claim ripe to be denounced as fake news – work in our current environment?
Disputes over research areas, data interpretation and ethics were on-going long before the current administration assumed power. Conflicts over the use of fetal tissues in research boiled over into an ugly battle just before Inauguration Day (3) and prior situations produced sharp debate and headlines. Should scientists have been allowed to resurrect the 1918 killer influenza virus? Have federal agency authorities been too lenient or too strict in the regulation of stem-cell treatments? Will we permit 3-parent babies to be created in the U. S.? While the scientific community has no consensus as to how to best respond to a growing list of ethical and political challenges more fuel is being tossed on the fire.
Science sometimes advances faster than efforts to explain developments to the public or devise regulations to ensure safe and appropriate use of new technologies. Aware CRISPR-Cas9 gene manipulation experiments had far outpaced regulations and probably concerned about inciting disastrous political fallout, a group of leading scientists called for colleagues to impose a moratorium on certain activities (4). Little more than one year later the U. S. National Academies endorsed genetic manipulation experiments on human embryos with restrictions (5).
Issues such as whether it is permissible to modify the human germline and/or conduct experiments on human embryos will be explosive. Researchers involved with genetic modification research will be pressured to both formulate praiseworthy scientific goals and consider the greater public mood regarding such work. The focus and extent of political influence that will impinge on these matters is unclear, but it seems likely the impending decisions and rule-making activities will not simply be entrusted to the scientific authorities alone.
Unfortunately, biotechnology in general and CRISPR-Cas9 methods in particular have fostered another problem – enormous conflicts of interest. Top academic scientists have discovered working as industry consultants, serving on corporate advisory boards or launching their own spin-off private enterprises may be lucrative and CRISPR promises to be the mother lode. An intense battle over patenting this technology has pitted prestigious research institutes and scientists against one another while exposing an extensive network of vested interests (6). The public needs honest brokers, but the most eminently qualified scientists are up to their necks in competing financial interests. Embroiled in struggles over scientific fame and personal fortunes, will they have the time and energy to undertake proactive outreach to educate the public about the coming genetic manipulation technologies? If they do will detractors tar their efforts as fake news?
The ivory tower is in turmoil; besieged from without and tormented from within.
(1) E. Marris. 2016. Is Donald Trump Pushing More Scientists Towards Political Activism? Nature, 13 December 2016. http://www.nature.com/news/is-donald-trump-pushing-more-scientists-towards-political-activism-1.21130
(2) The Nature Editorial Board. Researchers Should Reach Beyond the Science Bubble. Nature, 21 February 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/researchers-should-reach-beyond-the-science-bubble-1.21514
(3) The Nature Editorial Board. Fantasy Politics Over Fetal-Tissue Research. Nature, 11 January 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/fantasy-politics-over-fetal-tissue-research-1.21263
(4) N. Wade. 2015. Scientists Seek Moratorium on Edits to Human Genome That Could be Inherited. The New York Times, 3 December 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/science/crispr-cas9-human-genome-editing-moratorium.html
(5) S. Reardon. 2017. U. S. Science Advisers Outline Path to Genetically Modified Babies. Nature, 14 February 2017. http://www.nature.com/news/us-science-advisers-outline-path-to-genetically-modified-babies-1.21474
(6) J. Cohen. 2017. How the Battle Lines Over CRISPR Were Drawn. Science, 15 February 2017. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/how-battle-lines-over-crispr-were-drawn