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Hello Dolly

<i> Robert Lee Hotz is a Times science writer</i>

No single story from the annals of science claimed more public attention last year than the tale of the Scottish scientist who became the first in history to clone an adult mammal. The creation of Dolly, as sheep 6LL6 became known to the public, by Ian Wilmut at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh was science’s newest challenge to fundamental notions of existence.

As an unprecedented demonstration of human control over nature, it prompted awe. As a symbol of the hubris implicit in such control, it triggered second thoughts. Whatever its ultimate scientific or commercial importance, the unsettling reality of cloning--the ability to cultivate an entire being from a single adult cell in an act of asexual reproduction--undercut a human faith in the uniqueness of individual identity, even though it is not possible to duplicate human personality or the life experience that produces it.

Public surprise was electric. A tabloid fever infected press coverage. Many stories were oddly off-point about the implications of the breakthrough, lingering, for example, over the biology of identical twins while paying little attention to the fierce commercial forces driving the discovery. Yet ethicists have been brooding about the prospect of cloning since the early 1970s. Such uneven reactions from the press and the public appear to arise from a crippling credulity about cloning. Conditioned perhaps by too much fiction, the public has embraced science as a special effect, with little appreciation for its gritty technical limitations or the economics that shape it.

Indeed, news of Dolly was the third time in a decade that the popular press announced the advent of cloning, based on a series of incremental advances in reproductive cell biology since scientists first cloned frogs in 1962. As early as 1988, one distinguished American science writer pronounced solemnly, though somewhat prematurely: “The age of cloned mammals has arrived.” Just four years ago, cloning again was the stuff of headlines when a team of Georgetown University researchers claimed, incorrectly, to have cloned four dozen human embryos: Their procedure involved little more than artificially dividing cells with a razor. And in January, an elderly Chicago physicist named Richard Seed triggered a national media furor simply by telling a radio reporter about his half-baked proposal to clone humans.

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So if normally skeptical journalists, jaded by a succession of poseurs, fakers and failed experimenters, were breathless in their coverage of Dolly, it may have stemmed from the realization that cloning--declared impossible by so many scientists for so many years--had been truly achieved. And, by the same token, if the public seemed unprepared, it might simply be that, like townspeople who have heard the false cry of “wolf” so many times, they were caught off guard when the cries of alarm were finally true.

In a more welcome vein, the first in what promises to be a series of books examining the implications of cloning has been published. “Clone: The Road to Dolly and the Path Ahead,” by New York Times reporter Gina Kolata, lucidly separates science fact from fiction, reconstructs the history of scientific developments that led to Dolly’s creation and offers a thoughtful overview of the potential pitfalls attending the discovery.

With skill and dispatch, Kolata has written what, when the true import of this discovery becomes clear in years to come, may well be regarded as a crucial first chapter in the most important science story of the next century. She is at her best detailing how scientists themselves, blinded by their own insistence that cloning could never be done, ignored growing evidence that cloning was rapidly becoming a technical reality.

This is a book that grows out of Kolata’s daily newspaper coverage. Its virtues are those of effective deadline journalism: It is fast off the mark, accurate, diligent and comprehensive.

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Yet its flaws arise from the same root: Too often it is one-dimensional and reads as if dictated under pressure. Indeed, its most serious flaw is that it was written while the headlines from which it was drawn were still being parsed by pundits. Kolata was too busy covering the events that form its subject to offer any broader insight into their meaning. Through no fault of its own, the book cannot begin to convey how these events will eventually affect humankind: This is a story that has only begun to unfold.

Certainly, the publisher wasted no time in pushing the account into print, no doubt to capitalize on the imprimatur of The New York Times before the public’s fascination with the story waned, by promising to offer something more than what Kolata has already delivered to her newspaper readers.

In this instance, the book’s authority is buttressed by its publisher’s claim that Kolata is the reporter who broke the story of Dolly nationally and who, according to a review in Booklist, “was the first on the scene in the small Scottish village where embryologist Ian Wilmut enacted what will prove to be one of the most significant breakthroughs of all time.”

The idea that Kolata broke the news to the American public forms such an integral part of the publicity campaign for this book--indeed, the publisher has bannered it on the book jacket--that it seems only fair to examine its truth because it distorts events for marketing purposes in a way that should make any careful reader wary. Not only has the publisher linked the claim (with its suggestion of special knowledge and unusual enterprise) to the integrity of the book, the claim also offers some insight into journalism in the global village, in which the rush to profit from headline news has become as overheated as the headlines themselves.

To reconstruct how this story reached the public, I consulted the National Assn. of Science Writers; the editors of the science journal Nature, which published the formal research paper; and researchers at the Roslin Institute. As far as I can tell, here is what happened in the days before the world was informed officially that the cloning of an adult animal--a staple of science fiction for so long--had become a reality. It illustrates how important scientific news is more often a product of news management orchestrated by commercial science magazines that publish peer-review research than of any one reporter’s special expertise.

Although most people did not learn of the Roslin Institute’s accomplishment until the Sunday morning of Feb. 23 last year, most science writers were let in on the secret several days before. That is when Nature distributed a confidential advance notice of the achievement to dozens of reporters in the United States and Europe, notifying them that the journal intended to publish in its Feb. 27 issue the formal research paper prepared by Dolly’s creators. Kolata scrupulously notes in her book that this is how she first learned of the discovery.

The complete research paper was also faxed to any qualified reporter who requested it, including Kolata, under an embargo arrangement that precludes reporters from publishing stories until the formal research paper appears. This is customary with many journals that publish peer-reviewed research. Such access is designed to give reporters time to master difficult technical detail, interview scientists and gather necessary background material to place new research in its proper context. That is just what Kolata, by her own account, did.

Indeed, Wilmut had already hired a public relations firm to help field anticipated queries and had taken a media seminar to hone his television skills. And a documentary film crew was already on the scene at Roslin recording the research effort for a British television program.

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Shortly after the Nature press advisory was distributed, the Italian ANSA news service on Feb. 21 carried a notice of the embargoed announcement. At least three Italian newspapers, La Repubblica, L’Unita and Il Corriere della Sera, broke the embargo that Saturday, according to Nature managing editor Peter Wrobel. Nonetheless, it was a reporter not normally privy to this embargo arrangement--an English journalist named Robin McKie--whose scoop in the Sunday Observer, five days before the scheduled publication, triggered a global media stampede. “Ideas of a relaxing weekend were shattered by two phone calls late on Saturday evening warning us that the Observer would be running the story the next day,” Roslin’s assistant science director Harry Griffin later recalled.

McKie’s 1,000-word story, which Nature later determined was based on his own independent reporting and at least one confidential source, appeared in the early editions of the Sunday Observer newspaper on Feb. 23. It then instantly leapfrogged the time zones as Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN, Agence France-Presse, the BBC and the Press Assn. of Britain spread the news around the world.

McKie even had the enterprise to round out his scoop by securing an exclusive photograph of the sheep for his “front page splash,” purchasing a roll of film from a free-lance photographer who already had visited the Roslin Institute under contract to a popular weekly science magazine which had planned to run them after the embargo had expired. The magazine, according to Wrobel, was so furious that it later refused to pay the photographer’s expenses for the assignment.

A number of what English press agents like to call the “qualities"--major newspapers like the New York Times, the Times of London, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times--all scrambled Saturday night to match the Observer’s story. All four papers published their own accounts, which appeared simultaneously in later editions of the various papers that same Sunday, according to a computer data base search. Kolata, suffering perhaps from Manhattan myopia, gives her readers the impression that the story belonged to her alone that day, but she was just one of several reporters playing catch-up to McKie in the first wave of a media tsunami.

In the first week after McKie’s story broke, Roslin scientists, their corporate partner PPL Therapeutics and De Facto, their public relations firm, answered more than 2,000 telephone calls, talked at length to about 100 reporters and provided access to Dolly to 16 film crews and more than 50 photographers from all over the world. In this context, the claim to have broken the story to the American public is rather like a rooster taking credit for the dawn.

So it may be more accurate to say simply that Kolata was the reporter who broke the news to the readers of the later editions of the New York Times on Feb. 23, 1997--as the lead reporter in what was to be, over the course of the year, impressive and timely team coverage of a science story of unusual importance. A small cavil, perhaps, but a reporter of Kolata’s energy and intelligence has no need to entice readers with any grander claim. This book stands nicely on its own.


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