National Academies: We can’t define “race,” so stop using it in science

Portrait of two women's eyes.

With the advent of genomic studies, it is becoming clearer than ever that the genetic history of humanity is a turbulent one. Populations migrated, mixed and fragmented wherever they went, leaving us with a tangled genetic legacy that we often struggle to understand. The environment—in the form of disease, diet, and technology—also played an important role in shaping population.

But this understanding is often at odds with popular understanding, which often views genetics as a determining factor, and oftentimes explains Genetics On the one hand race. Even worse, although race cannot be scientifically defined or measured, popular thinking creeps back into scientific thought, shaping the kind of research we do and how we interpret results.

These are some of the New report conclusions Produced by the National Academies of Sciences. Released at the request of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the report calls on scientists and the agencies that fund them to stop thinking of genetics in terms of race, and instead focus on things that can be determined scientifically.

Racial thinking in science

The report is long overdue. The genetics data revealed that the popular understanding of race, which arose at a time when white supremacy was widely accepted, simply does not make sense. In the popular view, for example, “black” represents one homogeneous group. But genetic data shows that populations in sub-Saharan Africa are the most genetically diverse on Earth.

And just like anywhere else, the population in this region has not remained static. While some groups remained isolated from each other, the The vast Bantu expansion touched most of the continent. Along the coast of East Africa, a history of exchange with merchants from the Middle East can be discovered in many collections. There is also a tendency to treat African Americans as equals to Africans, when earlier populations carry the legacy of genetic admixture with European populations—often not by choice.

Similar things apply to all the populations we looked at, no matter where on the globe they reside. Treating any such population as a homogeneous, unified group—as a race, in other words—makes no scientific sense.

Yet, in countless ways, scientists have done just that. In some cases, the reasons for this were well-intentioned, as with the priority to diversify the population participating in medical studies. In other cases, scientists have carelessly allowed social views of race to influence research that would otherwise have a strong empirical foundation. Finally, true believers in ethno-essentialism have long skewed scientific findings to support their views.

The NIH, as the largest funder of biomedical research on the planet, has been forced to navigate our growing understanding of genetics while trying to diversify the researchers it funds and the participants who volunteer to be part of these studies. And so the National Institutes of Health commissioned the report from the National Academies, hoping it would provide evidence-based guidance on how to manage sometimes competing stresses.

Time to go

The resulting report shows why racist thinking has to go. Summary of the mismatch between race And Sciences Offers welcome clarity on the problem:

In humans, race is a socially constructed label, a misleading and harmful surrogate for population genetic differences, and has a long history of being incorrectly identified as the primary genetic cause of phenotypic differences between groups. Rather, human genetic variation is the result of many forces—historical, social, and biological—and no single variable fully accounts for this complexity. The structure of genetic variation results from admixture and repeated human movements through time, yet the misconception that humans can be naturally divided into biologically distinguishable races has been very malleable and has become an integral part of scientific research, medical practices and technologies, and formal education.

The findings of racial thinking are problematic in several ways. Historically, we have treated race as conveying some basic characteristics, and thinking of populations in terms of race tends to evoke this intrinsic perspective—although it is clear that any society has a complex mix of genetic, social, and environmental exposures. Fundamentalist thinking also tends to undermine recognition of the important role that environmental and social factors play in shaping population.

The report also notes that the racial burden of science leads to dirty thinking. Scientists often write in broad racial terms when working with more specific populations, and will mention ethnic groups even when it is not clear whether the information is relevant to their findings. These tendencies have grown increasingly larger as we have become much better at directly measuring things for which race was supposed to be a proxy, such as genetic distance between individuals.

Where do I go from here

Submit the report More than a dozen suggestions What the research community should do to place itself on a more solid scientific basis when conducting genetic and genomic studies. These are based on three main principles: avoiding fundamental thinking, including environmental influences, and involving the communities that participate in genetic research.

Some of the key recommendations focus on getting rid of the use of race and focusing instead on what the report calls “population descriptors.” These can be things like race, region of residence, etc. However, these descriptors must be used very differently from how we use race. For example, researchers must be willing to use multiple descriptors rather than a single, very broad category in order to be inclusive. The descriptors themselves should be limited to information relevant to the scientific question being asked. In other words, even if a descriptor is applied, it is not worth mentioning if it is not relevant.

In addition, researchers should use these descriptors on an individual level rather than selecting those that apply to entire study groups. This will better capture the fact that even the selected population no Being diverse (like the natives of the islands) will certainly contain diversity.

Finally, researchers must explain why they chose the descriptions they used, as well as the criteria used to assign them to individual participants. Overall, these recommendations are designed to force researchers to think about why and how these factors may relate to their studies rather than allowing them to mindlessly import societal ideas about race.

In addition, the report calls for a restoration of recognition of the importance of environmental factors. Geneticists certainly tend to focus on hereditary factors for obvious reasons, but this focus has led to a tendency to rant about the importance of environmental influences. The report recommends that researchers directly measure environmental influences as part of their study designs, ensuring that they are properly taken into account.

Finally, the report acknowledges that researchers likely won’t end up adopting these recommendations on their own. So it makes a series of recommendations to funding agencies and journal publishers aimed at implementing best practices. He recommends more communication between the research community and the population being studied in order to reduce the accidental adoption of community biases.

Juggling work

The report provides an excellent framework that will allow the NIH to change the way it does business in terms of the types of research it supports and the methods it finds acceptable. But the NIH will undoubtedly face a number of challenges in doing so. For example, it is part of the US government, and that government operates in a society where race is still very important, even if it has no scientific basis. As such, the government will almost certainly set priorities with regard to race that the NIH will have to implement — and may also need to force researchers to implement.

Most government agencies, for example, have adopted the five categories established by the Office of Management and Budget: White; black or African American; American Indians or Alaska Natives; Asia ; and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders. It is very difficult to combine the simplistic descriptions called for in this report.

But even if the government struggles to manage some of the report’s recommendations, the scientific community and the journals that publish them have no reason to avoid them. The report shows that failure to change is simply bad science.

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