The very long post I put up yesterday about the call for a moratorium on germline genome modification in humans made me think about Asilomar and its parallels. I know that STS (Science, Technology, and Society or Science and Technology Studies) scholars have long debated the value of the “first” Asilomar, the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA held in February 1975, and its lessons for other efforts. I have not looked into any of that research for this post, but instead am putting up my very lightly researched thoughts. I conclude that, at this point, there have been at least two “Asilomars” with several other contenders for the label and two other topics possibly ripe for one.

 Asilomars Past

If we consider “Asilomar” to be a process in which scientists call for a moratorium in their research pending a meeting to try to sort out the issues, I thought, when starting this post, that I knew of only the one Asilomar – the 1975 Recombinant DNA Conference.

The second issue is geo-engineering, specifically through modifying the Earth’s albedo (reflectivity). In February 2015 the National Research Council released a two-volume report on geo-engineering, which covered both of its two common meanings: carbon capture and albedo modification.  As the committee chair, Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt, wrote in an editorial in Science, the group recommended careful research on albedo modification while strongly discouraging its use.

This seemed to be another example of a semi-Asilomar ­– a call for continued safety research with a moratorium on use – but then I looked farther and saw that it actually was part of another, literal, Asilomar process.

In March 2010 the Climate Institute sponsored a five-day meeting of nearly 200 experts at Asilomar to discuss geo-engineering. The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, referred to at the time as Asilomar 2.0, here, and here,  produced a final report in November 2010 that featured five recommendations:

Promoting collective benefit

Establishing responsibility and liability

Open and cooperative research

Iterative evaluation and assessment

Public involvement and consent

 As far as I can tell, it did not expressly call for a moratorium on such research. In March 2013 the National Research Council formed the Committee on Geoengineering Climate that issued the February 2015 report. This could be viewed as a more detailed follow-up to the Asilomar conference, though Asilomar is only one of several important precursors cited in the NRC reports.

Quasi-Asilomars

One might argue that human reproductive cloning was a “partial Asilomar.” The scientists involved in that kind of research almost universally denounced the idea of doing somatic cell nuclear transfer for reproductive purposes in humans, but there was no formal call for a moratorium, as far as I can recall, nor a meeting to define the issues. There was a lot of regulation, both through express legislation in several nations and American states, and through the (not entirely obvious) assertion of jurisdiction over cloning by the U.S. FDA. One might still have legally tried reproductive human cloning, outside the United States (or after a court battle with FDA), and a few people said they did, notably Drs. Zavos and Antinori and Clonaid, a project associated with a religious sect, the Raelians. These would-be cloners were outside, and way outside, respectively the scientific mainstream, and there is no good reason to believe they succeeded.[1]

One could also consider the October 2014 U.S. government response to gain of function research in viruses, which has gone back and forth, as a “kind of” Asilomar in that a funding moratorium has been imposed, pending further understanding of the risks and proper precautions.  Unlike the first two, though, this was not self-imposed by those working in the field, but was a top-down decision by the government, albeit after a lot of public and expert discussion.

Asilomars Future?

The recent call in Science for a moratorium followed by discussion and meeting on germline genome modification in humans – the subject of my very long post from yesterday – seeks a process that might qualify as a third Asilomar.

I have recently seen suggestions of another scientific issue, not in bioscience, where an Asilomar-like approach may be employed: Active SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). Active SETI tries to send messages to possible alien civilizations; it has inspired substantial and heated debate, as this article in Slate sets out. It has also engendered a call, signed by 28 people active in the field, stating

We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to powerful communications equipment. We strongly encourage vigorous international debate by a broadly representative body prior to engaging further in this activity.

With only a couple of examples to date, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of the Asilomar process. In addition to their substantive merits, a few more attempts might tell us more about the method’s strengths and weaknesses.

Hank Greely

Director, Center for Law and the Biosciences

[1]           Zavos reported he had implanted cloned embryos but never had a successful birth; Antinori said he had several pregnancies and expected a birth in January 2003; Clonaid claimed to have succeeded, first with “Eve” in 2002, but are widely disbelieved, in part because they never let anyone test any of the 13 living human clones they said they had created through 2004.