Is freedom of scientific inquiry endangered in the US? Charles E. Hess of the University of California, who is also vice-chairman of the National Science Board, raises the question in a recent issue of Science magazine. He suggests that zealous advocates of certain viewpoints are using the US legal system to try to declare those aspects of research to which they object to be off limits. In effect, their efforts would restrict the traditional freedom of research without having such a revolutionary change in national policy fully considered and publicly debated in all its ramifications.
He has a point, although right now the danger is more potential than real. Nevertheless, Hess is well placed to detect the early signs of trouble. The National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds much of the nation's basic research, consists of the National Science Board plus the NSF director. From this vantage point, Hess has discerned a common theme in what would appear to be three disparate examples of extremist action.
* Rising pressure from animal-welfare advocates to restrict use of animals in research.
* The recent legal maneuvering of activist Jeremy Rifkin to block field trials of genetically altered bacteria and corn.
* The suit by California Rural Legal Assistance, which represents the California Agrarian Action Project, to halt or restrict research in mechanization of agriculture at the University of California.
In each instance, the activists have raised legitimate questions of safety or of the larger implications of certain research fields or practices. But they have done so as part of an underlying strategy of stopping such research altogether. It is here that the potential danger lies.
Animal-welfare advocates have properly decried abuse of laboratory animals and needless use of animals when other methods could yield the knowledge sought. Their efforts to gain legislation preventing the use for research of animals in public pounds are reasonable. But, as Hess points out, the more militant among these advocates appear bent on making it illegal to use animals from any source for any research at all. Such a total ban would be disastrous. It would, for example, bring much brain and nervous-system research to a screeching halt, to say nothing of the development of medicinals which must be tested in animals before being used with human beings.
Likewise, Jeremy Rifkin has a not very well-hidden agenda in his suit to force environmental-impact statements for even small field tests of genetically altered organisms. There is wisdom in his warning that humanity should look long and carefully at possible consequences before allowing large-scale use of such organisms. But his legal actions merely postponed some small tests for which experts foresee no ecological dangers at all. In his writings and public comments, Rifkin has made no secret of his desire to halt all genetic-engineering research, which he considers a sacrilegious tampering with organic life.
Again, in the suit against the University of California, farm workers who feel threatened by mechanization would stop research they feel does not benefit them. They raise an important question when they ask why public funds are not also spent on research from which they, too, could profit. But they seem much less interested in resolving this issue than in halting research they don't like.
Individually, such cases raise valid issues. But they are issues that should be resolved at the national level and in the context of US science policy as a whole. By trying to force specific action in specific cases through legislation or, more often, through the courts, determined activists are using the legal system to further their underlying goal of selectively restricting the freedom of scientific research.