BERLIN--In a provocative speech here last weekend, Nobel Prize-winner James D. Watson ventured into the ethical minefield of German genetic research and the legacy of Nazi eugenics policies. Addressing a molecular medicine congress, Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and a founder of the Human Genome Project, urged Germany to overcome widespread hostility to genetics research and focus on the great benefits that applying genome research can offer humankind. The time has come, he said, to "put Hitler behind us."
In the name of the pseudoscience of eugenics, Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime exterminated millions of Jews, Gypsies, mental patients, and disabled people between 1933 and 1945, and carried out experiments on concentration-camp prisoners. The guilt and horror at that grotesque misuse of science was a major factor in transforming Germany--once a leader in genetic research--into one of the most hostile environments for such research and the scientists who do it. In recent years, Germany has begun to emerge from its withdrawal--loosening some strict regulations and slowly rebuilding its genetic research.
Nevertheless, in his speech and at a related news conference, Watson told German scientists that their nation's genetic research is not moving fast enough. Watson said he was "very happy that Germany has now finally chosen to join" the genome project, but he added: "Your budget is still totally inadequate for Germany to have a real impact. You are putting money in to use the genome, not to get it."
Watson stepped even further into delicate territory: One reason German genetics has taken so long to recover, he said, is that "Germany never purged itself" completely of the scientists whose work was misused by the Nazis. Watson said that while some German researchers were punished after World War II, a number of discredited geneticists retained influential university posts.
"Genetics per se can never be evil," said Watson "It is only when we use or misuse it that morality comes in." He warned that geneticists should try to keep decisions about genetic testing and related matters "in the hands of the people" and away from state control.
Watson's remarks were loudly applauded by many German scientists at the meeting. Detlev Ganten, head of Berlin's Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, which co-organized the conference, says he agrees that Germany "never fully purged itself" of the sins of some Nazi-era geneticists, and is still "psychologically not well prepared" for such research. But Watson's jabs at Germany's fledgling $24 million a year genome project and the nation's research regulations ruffled some feathers at the Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology. Elke Wülfing, the ministry's representative at the conference, says that the genome project, started 2 years ago, "is getting an adequate share of the German research budget."
An expanded version of this story will appear in Science on Friday.