Principles to guide the use of racial categories in human genetics research

18 July 2008

In an open letter published in Genome Biology, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Stanford University have proposed ten principles to guide the use of racial categories in human genetics research [Lee et al. (2008) Genome Biology 2008, 9 (7), doi:10.1186/gb-2008-9-7-404]. The authors note that following the completion of the Human Genome Project, research exploring human genetic variation has intensified, leading to a debate on whether racial categorisation of genetic data is appropriate or whether it is “a pernicious reification of historically destructive typologies”.

Issues related to research into human genetic variation were explored in a series of seminars and discussions, leading the team to propose the guidelines in the article. Among the principles, the authors declare that they believe that there is “no scientific basis for any claim that the pattern of human genetic variation supports hierarchically organized categories of race and ethnicity” and caution against using genetic explanations for group differences in complex traits.

They also recommend improved education about genetic variation through encouraging funding for interdisciplinary study and urging researchers and other parties engaged in translation of research to collaborate in order to avoid overstatement of the contribution of genetic variation to phenotypic variation. They also recommend including historical and social scientific information when teaching genetics at the secondary and undergraduate levels, so that the past uses of science to promote racism as well as its impact in the future can be understood. In their conclusion the authors recognised that the language used by scientists and those in humanities and social sciences in relation to these issues varied and could create disagreements. They hoped that the principles set out in the article will encourage open interdisciplinary dialogue and “shape future use of categories of race and ethnicity in biomedical research”.

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