Title page for ETD etd-120199-091346

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Jones, Mary Ellen
Author's Email Address mejjones@vt.edu
URN etd-120199-091346
Title Politically Corrected Science: The Early Negotiation of U.S. Agricultural Biotechnology Policy
Degree PhD
Department Science and Technology Studies
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Zallen, Doris T. Committee Chair
Burian, Richard M. Committee Member
Flora, Cornelia Butler Committee Member
Hirsh, Richard F. Committee Member
Tolin, Sue A. Committee Member
  • genetic engineering
  • world view and science policy preferences
  • rDNA
  • Jeremy Rifkin
  • Reagan Administration
  • periodicity of technological controversy
  • Cloneheads
  • recombinant DNA in agriculture
  • science and politics
Date of Defense 1999-11-19
Availability unrestricted
This social history of science policy development emphasizes the impact on the agricultural community of federal policies regarding release of recombinant DNA (rDNA) organisms into the environment. The history also demonstrates that the U.S. Coordinated Framework for Biotechnology Regulation (1986) is based principally in political criteria, not solidly based in science as its proponents claimed. The power struggle among policy negotiators with incompatible belief systems resulted in a political correction of biotechnology. I also demonstrate that episodes in the rDNA controversy occur in repetitive and periodic patterns.

During the 1980s, the first rDNA microbial pesticide, Ice-Minus, struggled through a policy gauntlet of federal agency approval processes, a Congressional hearing, and many legal actions before it was finally released into the environment. At the height of the controversy (1984-1986), the Reagan Administration would admit no new laws or regulations to slow the development of technologies or hinder American international competitiveness. At the same time, Jeremy Rifkin, a radical activist representing a green world view, used the controversy to agitate for social and economic reform. Meanwhile, a group of Congressional aides who called themselves the "Cloneheads" used the debate to fight for more public participation in the science policy-making process.

Conflicting perspectives regarding biotechnology originated, not in level of understanding of the science involved, but in personal perspectives that were outwardly expressed as political group affiliations. The direction of federal biotechnology policy was influenced most successfully by politically best-positioned individuals (what I call a "hierarchy effect") who based decisions on how biotechnology harmonized with their pre-existing beliefs. The success of their actions also depended on timing.

Historical events during the rDNA controversy followed the same periodic pattern--gestation, threshold, crisis/conflict, and quasi-quiescence--through two consecutive eras--the Containment Era (1970s) and the Release Era (1980s). These periods are modeled after Fletcher's stages through which ethical issues evolve (1990). However, an agricultural perspective on the debate reveals that such stages also occur in finer detail on repeating, overlapping, and multi-level scales. Knowledge of this periodicity may be useful in predicting features of future episodes of the rDNA controversy

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