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The Biotech Future

Isaac Rabino

Modern biotechnology—specifically, recombinant DNA research—holds enormous promise. Recently the popular press has been filled with excitement, and much anxiety and confusion, about mammalian cloning. This discussion is being played out against a complex backdrop of public attitudes about biotechnology, and perceptions of those attitudes among scientists. Many applications soon may be made possible by recombinant DNA technology, popularly called genetic engineering or gene-splicing. It is no wonder, given the rapid advances in this field of research, that genetic engineering is widely seen as the science of the next century. But the risks involved in gene-splicing, let alone gene therapy or cloning, have led to controversy, activist pressures and litigation. Given the complex social climate that is developing around genetic technology, what glimpses can we get of the future of this, the most rapidly growing of the sciences?

Over the past decade I have conducted a series of surveys in the U.S. and in Europe, attempting to get a scientist's-eye view of this question and detect trends in the context in which scientists are working. I have examined my colleagues' perceptions of several questions: How do societal and political factors affect the work of recombinant DNA scientists? Are things getting better or worse? What does all the controversy mean for the future of biotechnology? And what are the main threats that must be overcome in order to realize the promise of this new field? I found a mixed picture: an assessment of public perception that differs sharply from one side of the Atlantic to the other, growing optimism about public acceptance of biotechnology in the U.S. (and support for that optimism in surveys of the public) but pessimism in Europe, and some signals that a number of challenges and dangers lie ahead for those working in this field.

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