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Needed: major study to resolve worries over biotechnology

Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II says he is ''continually astounded ... by the reaction among so many people to the emergence of the new biotechnology industries.''

Here is what he considers ''one of the truly revolutionary technologies of the century.'' Yet he finds many people, especially in Washington, reluctant to embrace it. They worry about how it might be misused or what might go wrong, rather than seeking to put it to the greatest possible use.

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Keyworth's astonishment is worth pondering, as his office leads a Cabinet-level study of how to regulate this new industry.

Keyworth sees biotechnology in the larger context of US technological strength in general. In recent speeches, such as the text of an address to the American Iron and Steel Institute, he has noted that the United States has the strongest science and technology base in the world. Yet the country seems unable to focus that strength industrially to meet stiff technology-based competition abroad. Among other reasons for this weakness, widespread suspicion - indeed, fear - of new technology seems a major handicap. This is typified by the public attitude toward biotechnology which Keyworth cites.

Actually there is little wonder that many people feel that way. The industry that produced better things for better living through chemistry also brought us hazardous-waste dumps. The dream of abundant cheap electric power from the ''peaceful atom'' became a nightmare of industrial mismanagement and needless mishaps. Feeling victimized by a shocking lack of foresight in these areas, people are understandably skeptical when pioneers of biotechnology, in effect, now say ''trust us.''

But there is more than concern for unforeseen consequences behind the widespread biotech resistance. After all, the US public has welcomed the computer-based ''information revolution'' despite job dislocations and other predicted social impacts. The benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Biotechnology raises fundamental issues of our concept of man and of life itself. These issues cannot be resolved by risk-benefit analyses.

To many people, test-tube fertilization followed by implant of the resulting embryo in surrogate mothers is a long first step on the road to test-tube babies. To many people, genetically engineered bacteria or corn plants raise the specter of genetically engineered people. Scientists working in these fields know they are far from having any such capabilities. Nevertheless, many people perceive a long-term threat.

This, in itself, would be sufficient reason for them to question biotechnology. In addition, there is concern over the ethics of embryo manipulation and research. The passions raised by this issue will be as intense as those raised by abortion.

Considered scientifically, it may seem irrational to lump test-tube babies and embryo research together with genetically engineered corn and other potentially beneficial products of genetic engineering. They are all facets, however, of the new biotechnology that is beginning to allow scientists to interfere with organic life and to manipulate it at its most basic levels.

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There is no consensus in the US or elsewhere as to how fast and to what extent this capability should be developed. Churches, governments, and people have scarcely begun to grapple with ethical questions of what limits to set. Scientists lack the ecological knowledge to foresee the consequences of releasing humanly designed organisms into our environment. Under these circumstances, it would be astounding if there were not widespread hesitation to rush ahead with biotechnology.

The report the Cabinet-level study group expects to release this fall should help map out guidelines as to how existing agencies and laws can best be used to begin regulating biotechnology. It should help point the way toward setting up a new regulatory system, to the extent this now may be needed. Such things, at best, will be only temporary measures.

Meanwhile, there is an increasingly pressing need for a major study - perhaps a presidential commission study - of the basic moral, ethical, and environmental issues that biotechnology raises. This could inform a national debate, which is badly needed. A national consensus as to what should be done in biotechnology and how it should be regulated can only be reached through such debate. And without that consensus, the United States will be unable to develop the strong biotechnical industry of which it is capable.

A Thursday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.