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Guidelines Warn Against Racial Categories in Genetic Research

Grappling with the deep history of racism in Western science, the National Academies of Science on Tuesday released guidelines recommending that scientists not use race as a category in genetic studies.

The guidelines, produced in response to a directive from the National Institutes of Health, noted that racial categories were poor proxies for genetic diversity and that social and environmental factors, like poverty and injustice, were often overlooked.

“The recommendations in this report provide a pathway to generate lasting change in an evolving field,” the authors said in a statement. {snip}


“I can tell you honestly I have never worked harder on any committee I have ever been on in my entire career, and I think every single person on that committee would say the same thing,” said Sarah Tishkoff, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the authors. {snip}


The authors created a flowchart to help scientists design their research. Different kinds of research call for different kinds of experiments.

Scientists looking for individual mutations that cause severe diseases, for example, may not need to consider the ancestry of their subjects at all. The mutation may well cause the same disease regardless of the ancestry of the person carrying it.

Other scientists look at the DNA of many people to reconstruct the ancestry of human populations. Dr. Tishkoff and her colleagues recommend that scientists don’t throw their subjects together in groups that don’t reflect their deep history. A national label like “Tanzanian,” for example, describes only people who live in a country that gained independence in 1961.

Instead, the authors recommend that scientists identify their subjects with meaningful information, such as their local ethnic group or language. In some studies, they said, it may be appropriate to describe subjects by the percentage of ancestry they can trace to different populations. When they publish their findings, researchers should be transparent about the grouping decisions they made so that other researchers can revise the groupings based on new evidence, the guidelines said.