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By honoring two American chemists Thursday for discovering how chemical reactions are triggered in living cells, the Nobel Prize committee has shown how far the world has come in putting some exaggerated fears behind it.

The work of Sidney Altman of Yale University and Thomas Cech of the University of Colorado is being hailed for opening the way to possible discoveries on how to correct certain genetic disorders and guard against viral infections.What a welcome contrast to the situation less than a decade ago when some scientists were warning that genetic experiments could unleash hordes of uncontrollable diseases.

The only prudent course, the scare-mongers insisted, was to put scientists in a straitjacket of narrow government rules drawn up by politicians.

Though some rules for genetic research were indeed adopted, the extremists fortunately did not prevail. The result is discoveries like those of Altman, Cech and many others. Down this road lies research that could produce vitamins, antibiotics and hormones more cheaply and efficiently; revolutionize agriculture; greatly simplify the control of pollution; and lead to cures for cancer and other diseases.

By all means, scientists still need to be held accountable for their work. But if any one lesson has been learned during the decade that led to this week's Nobel Prizes for Altman and Cech, it is to trust the common sense and responsibility of the scientific community so that it may stride forward boldly and confidently.