The prestigious 2004 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award, approved by the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), was bestowed upon the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC).
Work of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee has enhanced opportunities within the field of modern genetics, explained AAAS Science and Policy Director Albert H. Teich. The committee was established in 1974 to advise the Director of NIH on scientific, medical, ethical and social aspects of recombinant DNA research. Such research, which involves combining natural or synthetic genetic segments to form new DNA molecules that can replicate inside a living cell, might someday result in new strategies for curing or treating various diseases by correcting genetic errors. When the field was in its infancy in the 1970s, Teich explained, there was widespread public concern about potential hazards; the RAC was established in response to those concerns.
Since its inception, "The RAC has played a central role in developing responsible research practices and establishing criteria for the safe use of this promising but unproven technology," added Mark Frankel, director of the AAAS Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law program. The RAC criteria were first set forth in Guidelines published in 1976 and they continue to be revised periodically.
"Because the RAC carries out its work at open meetings," Teich said, "it has served as a valuable forum for public education. It has kept scientists aware of their responsibilities and at the same time has helped to defuse some of the original fears surrounding recombinant DNA research, while preparing society to accept and understand the responsible use of this technology to advance public welfare."
More recently, RAC has faced new challenges related to human gene therapy, Frankel noted. Despite their potential for saving lives and reducing suffering, he said, the techniques being used "have risks and benefits that are not yet fully understood at this time." As a result, RAC has been called upon to establish guidelines for gene therapy in clinical settings, to enhance awareness of research challenges, and to ensure a public voice in the review of the safety and ethics of gene therapy research.
Although RAC's role is advisory, and not regulatory, Frankel said, "its decisions and recommendations carry very strong moral suasion." Because the United States is the leader in this field of research, he added, the committee "has influenced the conduct of science throughout the world."
The Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award is presented annually by AAAS to honor individual scientists and engineers or organizations for exemplary actions that help foster scientific freedom and responsibility. The Award recognizes outstanding efforts to protect the public's health, safety, or welfare; to focus public attention on potential impacts of science and technology; to establish new precedents in carrying out social responsibilities; or to defend the professional freedom of scientists and engineers.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world's largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to "advance science and serve society" through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.
This annual Award was established in 1980 and consists of a prize of $5,000, to be bestowed at the 2005 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on 19 February. (See http://www.
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