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Town-gown relations

Junior Dr. Frankensteins?


When a Harvard committee decided last spring that it would be safe to conduct recombinant DNA research in the University's biology labs, most people around here thought that would be an end to it.

But then Cambridge's fiery Mayor Alfred E. Vellucci got into the debate, and the fight was on. Some critics of the gene-splicing research argued that it could create new--and dangerous--organisms, while others said it marked the first major step toward genetic engineering, eliciting fears of modern-day Dr. Frankensteins.

The battle between members of the Harvard faculty and the Cambridge City Council raged all summer and spring, until the council declared a six-month moratorium on the research within the city boundaries while a citizens' group investigated the health hazards it might pose.

That six-month period stretched into nine, and eventually the citizens' group reported that the controversial work could go on, provided the scientists followed National Institutes of Health safety guidelines and a few other restrictions. The city council approved the report over Vellucci's objections, and Harvard continued to build the special labs needed for the research.

Although it didn't stop the recombinant DNA research, the city council's action is important as a precedent for citizen control over scientific work. By stepping in and demanding a say in Cambridge labs' activities, Vellucci and other Cambridge citizens raised the question of community control over scientific work in residential areas--a question that will probably have to be thrashed out further in years to come.

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