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Dr. Genelove: How Scientists Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Recombinant DNA Open Access

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People are still debating recombinant DNA today, whether they know it or not. As the technology that gave birth to the biotechnology revolution, recombinant DNA initiated passionate debates from 1971 until 1978 which dealt with issues still central to biotechnology: biohazard safety; scientific freedom and responsibility; the standard of national policy preempting city and state initiatives to ensure the ability to conduct research uniformly around the country; the influence of scientific, business, and environmental lobbying on Congress; and, above all, who should be responsible for the creation, oversight, and enforcement of biotechnology advancements. The years from the initial proposed recombinant DNA experiment in 1971 until the Asilomar Conference in late February 1975 were essential in determining the future of recombinant DNA research and setting the boundaries for the debates between scientists and in the public sphere. Despite the urgency of some scientists to move forward with recombinant DNA research during this period, there were times of little momentum and there certainly was no guaranteed outcome. It was in these essential years that fundamental questions were asked about the nature and safety of scientific inquiry, and where tough decisions were made that broke with the traditions of the scientific establishment and demonstrated an extraordinary degree of social responsibility at a critical moment in the history or molecular biology. The dissertation explores the events that were occurring inside and outside of the laboratory that influenced the debates. These included the dramatic changes in molecular biology, the rise of the environmental social responsibility among scientists, and radical science movements, as well as, the changing role of the scientific and lay press. These essential first years of the debate also created enduring networks that helped shepherd recombinant DNA through a myriad of scientific organizations and governmental agencies, as well as, respond to the criticism by other scientists and the public in the days, months, and years following the 1975 Asilomar Conference, which came to a consensus on the safety of recombinant DNA.

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