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July 7th, 2007
Public Distrust of Science Made Cambridge the Biotech Capital of the World
The specter of submitting their work to public examination can be scary to researchers in controversial fields like biotechnology and nanotechnology. They worry that scientific illiteracy and fearmongering will hijack any meaningful dialogue. But as the history of Cambridge, Massachusetts shows, involving the public can actually improve science.
Back in the 1970's, when scientists refined techniques of DNA manipulation, a lot of people worried that bench-altered bugs would escape labs and infect people. (It wasn't just the untrained public who feared this, but quite a few scientists, too.)
In Cambridge -- location of Harvard, MIT and other renowned research universities -- a national debate became local. Harvard proposed turning a nearby lab into a high-security facility for potentially dangerous research; Harvard faculty and members of the public declared their alarm, arguing that a decision that could affect the entire community deserved to be made by the community; and the city held public hearings.
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