The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG) was founded 25 years ago by a coalition of scientists, public and occupational health activists, and reproductive rights advocates. From its inception, CRG published articles in its magazine, GeneWatch, that examined the societal impacts of new discoveries in applied genetics. The field of public interest biotechnology had not yet taken root when CRG was formed, a tribute to the prescience of its founders.
Many of the articles appearing in GeneWatch were written for a general audience, but were based on the latest scientific findings. CRG Board members, lawyers, biologists in many disciplines such as practicing geneticists, ecologists, embryologists, and molecular biologists contributed articles on risk assessments of genetically modified organisms, on the possible military uses of biotechnology, and on the mythology and oversimplification of the role of genes in biological systems,
As the commercial interests in biotechnology became pervasive in American universities, there was a scarcity of disinterested and scientifically informed critics of biotechnology. The Council was the only dedicated place people could go to for another viewpoint on some new product or technique, a plan to genetically redesign human beings, or a project to re-speciate the biosphere with synthetic genetically-modified organisms.
Among its early contributions, CRG coined the term "genetic discrimination," debunked false or exaggerated claims made about behavioral genetics, questioned the ethics of germ-line gene therapy, warned the public about the risks of genetically modified food, and advanced an agenda for financial disclosure in journals in response to the conflicts of interest arising when academia became partners with for-profit biotechnology companies.
CRG was among the first organizations to correctly predict that chemical corporations would use genetic screening to rid the workplace of individuals who were genetically presdisposed to be affected by toxins and radiation in the environment rather than improving the health conditions of the workplace. More generally, CRG has deciphered and debunked genetic reductionism, the view that genes (outside of cells, organs, and the environment) are the causes of disease, behavior, intelligence or aggression, a dangerous development for free, democratic societies. As a result of this pioneering work a generation of teachers, activists and scientists has been informed by CRG's publications, briefing papers, workshops and books.
The current landscape of public interest organizations working in biotechnology and applied genetics has grown, especially over the past decade. However, CRG remains the only organization that exclusively works in the area of biotechnology and is explicitly dedicated to examining the best science, interpreting the results, assessing the implications, and communicating it to a general audience. CRG works with grass roots activists and provides a bridge between scientists and social activists.
Toward this end, CRG:
- Explores and documents developments in biotechnology through a holistic approach that considers science within a social, cultural, ethical, and environmental context.
- Serves as a global knowledge resource, providing information and education about the potential impact of new and emerging biotechnologies.
- Develops concrete policy solutions to address emerging issues in biotechnology.
- Mobilizes and collaborates with scientists and other organizations to inform the public and promote democratic control of science.
- Exposes over-simplified and distorted scientific claims regarding the role of genetics in human disease, development and behavior.
- Advocates on behalf of the public interest.
Like all technological revolutions, genetic technology must be democratically managed to ensure that it is not misused for narrow interests. Toward this end, we need an organization that provides the intellectual and political space for scholars and activists to share knowledge, to raise social and ecological questions such as whether genetic technology is consistent with principles of sustainability, to alert people to the social justice ramifications of the human genome project, and to help people engage in decisions about the path society should take in creating genetically modified life forms. The Council for Responsible Genetics is well-positioned to serve as catalyst and thought leader in the movement to steer biotechnology toward the advancement of public health, environmental protection, equal justice and respect for human rights.