In 1975, some 140 scientists met at the Asilomar resort on California’s rocky Monterey Peninsula to discuss the nascent science of mixing DNA from different organisms.
Until that point, researchers had deliberately not performed the final steps of such experiments, owing to concerns about safety and ethics. Over three days of discussions, the conference attendees agreed to voluntary restrictions on recombinant-DNA research, and drafted a document that listed the potential risks of such experiments and how to carry out the work safely.
The meeting is seen as the first time that science had regulated itself — effectively avoiding government intervention — and assuaged public fears by addressing biosafety concerns head-on.
Today, no scientific controversy is complete without calls for an ‘Asilomar-like’ conference. Until such a conversation has taken place, proponents say, researchers should not proceed with risky propositions.
Debates on artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons, geoengineering and the use of gene-editing technology have all referred to Asilomar as a useful model. (Geoengineers went so far as to meet in Asilomar.) This month, a group of scholars, programmers, artists, entrepreneurs and video-game...