Challenge: “Refrain From Using the Alphabet”
Turn back the clock to 1976. It’s three years after the scientific community raised concern about the safety of recombinant DNA experiments. It’s one month after the NIH issued guidelines to regulate recombinant DNA work. The Cambridge City Council is meeting with scientists from nearby institutions to discuss the consequence of these guidelines for the community surrounding the laboratories and to consider additional resolutions and actions that the city might take to ensure the safety of its citizens.
In this class, we’ll watch a video produced by Charlie Weiner, Professor Emeritus in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, for the MIT Oral History Program Recombinant DNA History Project. [Unfortunately this video is not publicly available].
- “Hypothetical Risks, The Cambridge City Council hearings on DNA experimentation in Cambridge.” Recorded at City Hall, Cambridge MA, 1976.
Although the audio and the video quality have degraded, it provides an invaluable window into the dynamics of these debates, showing the human side of what can sometimes, in retrospect, look like merely academic debates or simplified as over-emotional public reaction.
The cast, listed in the order of speaking:
- Mr. Alfred Vellucci, Mayor of Cambridge (1970-71, 1976-77, 1982-83, 1988-89)
- Dr. Mark Ptashne, Prof. of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Harvard University
- Dr. Daniel Branton, Chairman Safety Committee, Harvard University
- Dr. Maxine Singer, Biochemist, National Institutes of Heath (NIH)
- Ms. Saundra Graham, Cambridge City Council
- Mr. David Clem, Cambridge City Council
- Dr. Ruth Hubbard, Prof. of Biology, Harvard University
- Dr. Jonathan King, Prof. of Biology, MIT
Why are we doing this??
The exchanges we’ll hear in this video highlight many relevant aspects of emerging technologies, not only recombinant DNA. After we watch the videotape we will consider, as a class, some of the dialog and the lessons we might apply from this history to biotechnologies coming on line today (and tomorrow). These considerations include:
Beyond keeping these topics in mind as you watch the video, you should also be familiar with the kinds of biosafety (then called biohazard) levels that will be discussed and what each level (then called P1, P2, P3, and P4 now called BSL1, 2, 3, 4) means. Please refer to the BioBuilder biosafety levels animation.
Just Before Watching the City Council Videotape
We’ll review some details about recombinant DNA that are relevant to the videotape:
- What is a recombinant DNA experiment?
- What technical advances and techniques are involved in making/propagating recombinant DNA?
- What has been done with recombinant DNA in the last 30+ years? What hasn’t been done?
- More specifically: what hasn’t been done that was of concern at the time these techniques came on line?
After Watching the City Council Videotape
As a class we will consider various exchanges among the hearing participants, and what they tell us about the considerations numerated above.
Homework for Tomorrow’s Studio Session
Please review the requirements for the project 3 ideas presentation. Your presentation will be one week from tomorrow. You’ll have all of tomorrow’s studio session to work on your 3 ideas and that time will be best spent if you come to the studio with an agenda.
Today will be a project work day with your advanced student mentors. You should organize your progress and task list and thinking in your project notebook log, be it electronic or on paper, depending on your preferred style. Your 3 ideas presentation will be one week from today.
We will start the day with a short presentation from Howard Silver, Co-Head & Biological Engineering Librarian Engineering & Science Libraries. He will come to the studio time with some helpful hints for finding and organizing references, but he’s also happy to answer your particular questions.
MIT Libraries. Research Guide for 20.020.
Homework for Tomorrow’s Guest Lecture by Prof. Jonathan King, MIT
- Think a little more about the Cambridge city council hearing video we watched earlier this week and any questions or concerns you still have circling in your mind. Write down one question you’d like to ask Prof. King.
- Please read this ScienceNow overview article about the proposed BSL-4 facility that is being considered for South Boston.
Kaiser, Jocelyn. “NIH Criticized for Flawed Review of Biosafety Lab.” ScienceNOW Daily News, November 29, 2007. [Article discusses this report by the National Research Council. “Technical Input on the National Institutes of Health’s Draft Supplementary Risk Assessments and Site Suitability Analyses for the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory, Boston University: A Letter Report.” National Academies Press, 2007.]
In light of what you heard today about the reactions that neighbors have to nearby research programs, think about the comments that concerned citizens and scientists might raise to those planning the facility and constructive conversations that supporters of the facility could initiate.
Professor King’s talk tomorrow will use these ideas as points of departure. Please come with these assignments prepared so you can take full advantage of this opportunity to talk with him.
Guest Lecture by Professor Jonathan King, MIT
Jonathan King is a Professor of Molecular Biology at MIT. His laboratory studies protein folding, including thermal stress responses in marine cyanobacteria and their phages. In addition, Professor King has long been concerned with the social, economic and public health consequences of biomedical research. He was a founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics and served as Co-Chair of its Committee on the Military Use of Biological Research. We are very fortunate to have him address our class. His talk will reflect on the emergence of past/present/future technologies as well as the interface of the scientific and engineering community with the broader public to address public concerns.