Science and the Public Interest

Joshua Lederberg has not only been an imaginative researcher, but a public scientist and intellectual who has crossed the divisions between science, society, and politics. In an era when the emergence of nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, and environmental pollution tested as never before the ethical and political commitments of scientists, Lederberg devoted himself to advancing reforms by influencing public policy. He has advised presidents, cabinet members, governmental agencies, non-profit organizations, and international bodies on science and medical research policy, mental health, emerging infectious diseases, space exploration, national security, and arms control. In his public career he personified the postwar American liberal, inspired by a belief in the ability of modern government to improve society and ensure peace, and in the responsibility of experts to help guide government action.

In most instances, Lederberg has eschewed participation in public protests and other forms of collective action, and has declined to lend his name to reform causes, including those led by fellow scientists, such as Linus Pauling's campaign for nuclear disarmament. Instead, Lederberg has preferred to promote reforms as an individual and to effect gradual change from within governmental institutions, using his authority as columnist, author, lecturer, expert witness before Congress, and advisory panel member to sway policy makers.

Lederberg began his long career as a government advisor in 1957, when he joined the President's Science Advisory Committee, a panel made up of several of the nation's leading scientists who provide advice and analysis to the President and the federal government on a wide range of scientific and technological matters, in particular those related to nuclear weapons and national security. He served on President John F. Kennedy's White House transition team as a consultant on health care policy, and on the President's Panel on Mental Retardation from 1961 to 1962. In this role Lederberg forged a close professional relationship with President Kennedy's sister, Eunice Shriver, and her husband, Sargent Shriver, who shared his interest in the neurological and genetic causes of mental illness. They decided to establish the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Laboratories for Molecular Medicine, a facility that focused on the study of mental retardation, at Stanford University Medical School, Lederberg's home institution.

Throughout his life Lederberg retained his interest in medicine and human welfare, and it is in this area in which his scientific and public policy interests combine most closely. He continued to build connections between basic science, medicine, and health care, both nationally and internationally, as a member of the National Mental Health Advisory Council from 1967 to 1971, and later as Chairman of the President's Cancer Panel from 1979 to 1981, under President Jimmy Carter. He joined the Advisory Committee for Medical Research of the World Health Organization during the 1970s, and again during the 1990s.

He continued to advise government on scientific issues during the 1980s and 1990s. He chaired Congress's Technology Assessment Advisory Council between 1988 and 1995. Between 1988 and 1993 he was Co-Chairman of the Carnegie Corporation's Commission on Science, Technology, and Government (unofficially entitled "The Commission on Everything" by its members because of its broad mandate), which examined the ways in which science informs governmental decision-making in the United States.

Among his engagements in non-profit organizations, Lederberg served on the Board of Trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council from 1972 to 1984. He resigned his position in disagreement over the Council's growing emphasis on litigation, rather than lobbying and public education, as its primary strategy for protecting the environment.

Committed more fully than most notable scientists to bringing developments in science and their social implications to the attention of the public and of Capitol Hill, Lederberg wrote a weekly editorial column entitled "Science and Man" for the Washington Post between 1966 and 1971. In it he commented on the state of science education and reporting, on scientific freedom and the role of scientists in society, and on the ethically challenging scientific issues of the day, from population control and intelligence testing to the regulation of recombinant DNA technology.

One of the issues Lederberg repeatedly addressed in his column was the role modern genetics should play in enhancing the health and biological fitness not only of individuals, but of human populations. Advances in molecular genetics during the 1960s, in particular the deciphering of the genetic code, promised a better understanding of how genes regulate human development and impart desirable mental and physical traits. At the same time, modern genetics raised the specter of new forms of discrimination against people considered to be at heightened genetic risk for disease or mental abnormality.

Lederberg distinguished himself in this discussion by contrasting eugenics--the controversial and often coercive practice of fostering desired genetic traits within a population by encouraging selective mating and controlling reproduction by those deemed genetically inferior--with euphenics, a term he coined to denote a full range of modern medical technologies and health policies designed to promote individual human development to its fullest genetic potential. (In proposing this term, Lederberg drew an analogy to the distinction between genotype, an organism's genetic constitution, and phenotype, its physical and physiological make-up when fully developed.) Among the measures he espoused were fine-detail mapping of the human genome and location of genes that predispose an individual towards disease, genetic counseling of prospective parents, prenatal diagnosis, genetic modification and therapy, and the assessment of the effects of environmental hazards such as chemical pollutants and radioactive radiation on the human genome.

Lederberg has been most deeply involved in public policy debates regarding national security and national defense, disarmament, and preparedness. To a geneticist, bacteriologist, and virologist, the dangers to human health and welfare posed by biological warfare in particular, and later by bioterrorism, were obvious, and had to be prevented. Although biological warfare agents were considered by some to be similar to nuclear weapons, Lederberg pointed out in his editorials and other places that biological weapons were in fact uncontrollable, unpredictable, and indiscriminate in their effect on soldiers and civilians alike. Unlike nuclear weapons, he noted, microbial agents could not be tested without directly injuring humans or animals. His work on bacterial genetics led him to see that once introduced into the environment, self-replicating biological weapons agents threatened the entire human population, especially if they consisted of bacteria or viruses engineered to be more virulent or drug-resistant. Biological weapons research itself was irresponsible, Lederberg argued, as disease organisms could escape from the laboratory and imperil the public health even in times of peace. Moreover, such research perverted the aims of medical science by using scientific knowledge to infect and to kill, rather than to promote human well-being.

To help contain the threat of biological warfare, Lederberg became a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during negotiations in Geneva over the international Biological Weapons Convention, signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain in April 1972. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on International Security and Arms Control since its founding in 1980, he met regularly with representatives of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. between 1985, when President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms of the Soviet government, and the mid-1990s. The two groups conferred in an attempt to uncover the extent of the Soviet biological weapons program, to help secure the agents it had produced, and to facilitate the transition of biological weapons scientists to civilian research. Also during the mid-1990s, Lederberg took up the growing threat of terrorist attacks with biological weapons, urging policymakers to act against the proliferation of such weapons and to enhance preparedness by strengthening the nation's public health capabilities.

In the broader area of defense policy, Lederberg has served on the Defense Science Board for over two decades, beginning in 1979. The Board advises the Secretary of Defense on developments in science and technology that affect military weaponry and strategy, military manpower policy, and arms control. In this capacity he chaired a task force that assessed the medical evidence and policy dimensions of Gulf War Syndrome. It concluded that current medical science was unable to identify a pattern of symptoms that would indicate a specific new disease among veterans of the Gulf War in 1991.

Through his work in bacterial genetics, exobiology, and biological warfare, Lederberg has gathered insights into infectious diseases and other bacterial and viral health threats for many decades. His experience has led him most recently to decry complacency in the never-ending contest between man and microbe. In speeches and publications he has warned of the likelihood--in fact, the certainty--that old infectious diseases, scourges of mankind like epidemic influenza and tuberculosis, will reemerge as humans lose their immunity and strains become drug-resistant, and that new ones will emerge as pathogens continue to evolve. Firm in his life-long belief that scientific knowledge and enlightened public policies can overcome such challenges and ameliorate the human condition, he has called upon scientists and policymakers alike to further research on the molecular biology of infectious agents as well as on vaccines and drugs, and to build a public health system able to contain a future outbreak.