From the President

Scientific Inquiry: A Risky Business

What kinds of knowledge are good for us? What kinds are dangerous? Who decides?

One answer came in the middle of the night last May, when an incendiary device destroyed the main building of the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture. We were meant to learn, from the smoldering ruins, that nature is good, genetic research is dangerous, and decisions about these things will be made by self-appointed vigilantes.

Merrill Hall is in ruins after a May 21 arson attack that caused $4 million in damages. Photo by Mary Levin.

Merrill Hall is in ruins after a May 21 arson attack that caused $4 million in damages. Photo by Mary Levin.

Of course, as the article in this issue makes clear, the attack on CUH was tragically misguided even by the standards of these particular vigilantes. No one at the center was splicing genes. Much of the work there revolves around studying, restoring, and mimicking natural ecosystems. To target such a place for destruction, in the name of some higher environmental consciousness, is to underscore a truth (courtesy of Alexander Pope) that predates the study of genetics: "A little learning is a dangerous thing."

Presumably, few people would approve of blowing up Toby Bradshaw's lab even if he had been splicing genes. But the strong and immediate public support for CUH was beyond our expectations. The on-site salvage work by volunteers, the statements of political leaders and editorialists, the legislative funds for rebuilding (in a very tight budget year)—all were heartening evidence, not only of the center's good work, but also of public backing for the value and the values of University research. For all this we are grateful.

Yet this remains a troubling episode. There is the obvious threat of future violence, and therefore a threat to the openness that is so important to our collective search for new knowledge. But the issues raised go further. To what extent do the acts of fringe radicals feed on a wider public uneasiness about where science, and especially the science of genetics, is taking us? How many people who would never dream of torching a lab are nevertheless sympathetic to the "stop-the-biotechnology-I want-to-get-off" rallying cry of the vigilantes? That is the real threat to future research.

To what extent do the acts of fringe radicals feed on a wider public uneasiness about where taking us?

We can counter this threat in three ways. Most fundamentally, we can promote better understanding, in our own students and in the world at large, of biology and genetics. Eminent UW geneticist Maynard Olson sees genetics education, in particular, as urgent. "People react irrationally," he has said (foreshadowing the CUH attack), "to forces they don't understand."

Second, we can redouble our efforts to make known the broad benefits of genetic and biomedical research. Those benefits are undeniable, and the UW has many wonderful stories to tell. For example, current methods of making hepatitis B vaccine and human insulin originated in the basic research of UW genetecist Benjamin Hall almost 20 years ago. The current genomic research of Professor Olson himself holds the promise of similar breakthroughs in treating cystic fibrosis. We are on the brink of genetic knowledge that has vast potential for improving human health and well-being (see "Code Control").

Finally, we can be honest about the scientific enterprise. It is indeed a noble search for truth, and it has indeed brought astonishing advances in our understanding of the universe and ourselves. But it is also messy, risky, and marked by the same mixed motives and imperfect outcomes as every other human undertaking. It is not a straight road to guaranteed progress and happiness. It is not synonymous with wisdom or enlightened public policy. Every scientist I know is perfectly clear about all this, but the public needs to be clear about it too. Otherwise, science raises both unreasonable expectations and unreasonable fears, and we risk the very freedom of inquiry that has brought us so far.

To return to our opening question: all knowledge carries danger. That is the nature of our human reality. We have told ourselves many stories to that effect, from the Book of Genesis and the myth of Prometheus to Frankenstein and Brave New World. But that has never stopped us from seeking to know more. It is not in our nature as a species—not in our genes—to leave well enough alone. The real question is what we choose to do with knowledge. In answering that question, incendiary devices have no place.

Richard L. McCormick signature

Richard L. McCormick, President

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