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Genes, computers, and ethics

The more human beings learn to control the forces of nature the more they have to learn to control themselves. They must choose between the good and bad uses of every advancing step: from fire to fast cars, to nuclear fission, to the twin technological revolutions -- in genetic engineering and information processing -- which present the latest ethical challenges. We have discussed these challenges before, but recent developments demand further comment.

Consider the call by the president of Stanford University, Donald Kennedy, for a conference on ethical guidelines for the development and commercialization of genetic engineering's capacity to alter earthly life forms. Stanford has been a leader in the field, but no one seems to be picking up Mr. Kennedy's invitation. ''Indeed, the thinking in regard to ethical standards for universities on this matter is in disarray,'' reported the Monitor's natural science editor, Robert C. Cowen, in last week's series, ''The revolution in biotechnology.''

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The need for clarifying the ethical disarray becomes more urgent as researchers are confronted with huge subsidies by drug and chemical manufacturers -- and by the prospects of huge profits from research results that are marketable. Will research be unduly influenced by gain as opposed to free scientific inquiry? Already there are warnings about secrecy to protect potential patents inhibiting the free communication which has been at the heart of scientific progress. And there are the questions of how far technology should go in making the genetic changes it is capable of making.

The benefits of biotechnology could be enormous, from the development of pollution-eating bacteria to improved plant and animal strains. The laboratory safety problems have been found less than originally thought. But the ethical problems of choice remain. A conference on the subject seems the least that the public should expect.

Public concerns and public participation also ought to be addressed in relation to today's other technological revolution, the electronic processing of information of all kinds. A major study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment is a reminder of the promise and pitfalls requiring the most scrupulous use of the mushrooming information capabilities.

Some welcome computerized information resources as a boon to the globe's remotest corners, with Japan taking a lead in involving third-world people as it speeds information development. In the United States, more than half the work force is already part of the information segment of the economy, including manufacturers as well as handlers of information equipment. The new study sees the further growth of the new information systems as bringing a transformation of society reminiscent of that wrought by the printing press. Each advantage in ease of obtaining and using information carries with it the possibility of abuse , of invasion of privacy, of censorship.

Once again technological control requires ethical control. Remember the concept of ''cultural lag,'' the failure of one part of a society to keep up with changes in another? What must be avoided now is ethical lag, a failure of humanity's ethical discernment to keep up with its stunning technical feats.

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