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

With the advent of genomic studies, it is becoming increasingly clear that the genetic history of humanity is an upside-down story. Populations migrated, mixed and fragmented wherever they went, leaving us with a confusing genetic legacy that we often struggle to understand. The environment—in the form of disease, diet, and technology—also played a critical role in shaping populations.

But this understanding is often at odds with popular perception, which often sees genetics as the determining factor and, too often, interprets genetics from his point of view race. Even worse, even though race cannot be defined or quantified scientifically, popular thinking feeds back into scientific thinking, shaping the kind of research we do and the way we interpret the results.

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

Racial thinking in science

The report is long overdue. Genetic data has revealed that the popular understanding of race, developed at a time when white supremacy was widely accepted, simply makes no sense. In the popular view, for example, “Black” represents a single, homogeneous group. But genomic data make it clear that populations in sub-Saharan Africa are the most genetically diverse on Earth.

And, like everywhere else, populations in this region have not remained stagnant. While some groups remained isolated from each other, the vast expansion of the Bantu touched most of the continent. Along the coast of East Africa, the history of exchange with Middle Eastern traders can be traced to several groups. There is also a tendency to treat African Americans as equivalent to Africans when the former population carries the legacy of genetic mixing with European populations – often not by choice.

Similar things apply to every population we’ve looked at, no matter where on the planet they live. Treating any of these populations as a monolithic, uniform group—as a race, in other words—makes no scientific sense.

However, in countless ways, scientists have done just that. In some cases, the reasons for this were well-intentioned, such as the priority of diversifying the populations involved in medical studies. In other cases, scientists have carelessly allowed societal views of race to influence research that might otherwise have had a solid empirical basis. Finally, true believers in racial essentialism have always twisted scientific results 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 both the researchers it funds and the participants who volunteer to participate in these studies. So the NIH commissioned the National Academies to produce this report, presumably in the hope that it would provide evidence-based guidelines on how to manage the sometimes competing pressures.

Time to go

The resulting report makes it clear why racial thinking needs to stop. A summary of the mismatch between race and science offers welcome clarity on the problem:

In humans, race is a socially constructed designation, a misleading and harmful proxy for population genetic differences, and has a long history of being misidentified as the primary genetic reason for phenotypic differences between groups. Rather, human genetic variation is the result of many forces—historical, social, biological—and no single variable fully accounts for this complexity. The structure of genetic variation results from repeated human population admixtures and movements over time, yet the misconception that human beings can be naturally divided into biologically distinct races has been remarkably durable and has become embedded in scientific research, medical practice, and technologies and formal education.

The results of racial thinking are problematic in a variety of ways. Historically, we have viewed race as imparting certain basic qualities, and thinking of populations in terms of race tends to evoke this essentialist perspective—even though it is clear that any population has a complex mix of genetic, social, and environmental exposures. Essentialist thinking also tends to undermine recognition of the important role these environmental and social factors play in shaping population.

The report also notes that the racial baggage of science leads to sloppy thinking. Scientists will often write in general racial terms when working with much more specific populations, and they will mention racial groups even when it is not clear that the information is even relevant to their results. These trends are becoming increasingly unfounded as we have become much better at directly measuring the things race was intended to proxy for, such as genetic distance between individuals.

Where to go from here

The report offers more than a dozen suggestions for what the research community should do to place itself on firmer scientific ground when doing genetic and genomic studies. These are based on three key principles: avoiding essentialist thinking, including environmental influences, and involving the communities involved in genetic research.

Some of the key recommendations center around getting rid of the use of race and instead focusing on what the report calls “population descriptors.” These can be things like nationality, area of ​​residence and so on. These descriptors, however, should be used very differently from the way we use race. First, researchers should be willing to use multiple descriptors rather than a single, overly broad category in order to include everyone. The descriptors themselves should be limited to information relevant to the scientific question being asked. In other words, even if a descriptor applies, it is not worth mentioning if it is not relevant.

Furthermore, researchers should use these descriptors at the individual level rather than selecting those that apply to entire study populations. This will better capture the fact that even the selected populations not being diverse (such as indigenous islanders) will almost certainly contain diversity.

Finally, researchers should explain why they chose the descriptors they used, as well as the criteria used to assign them to individual participants. Generally, these recommendations are structured to force researchers to think about why and how these factors relate to their studies rather than allowing them to unthinkingly introduce social ideas about race.

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

Finally, the report acknowledges that researchers likely will not end up adopting these recommendations on their own. Thus, it offers a series of recommendations for funding bodies and journal publishers to enforce best practice. And it recommends greater communication between the research community and the populations being studied in order to limit the casual adoption of societal biases.

A juggling act

The report provides an excellent framework that will allow NIH to change the way it does business in terms of the kinds of research it supports and the methods it deems acceptable. But 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 still matters a lot, even if it has no scientific basis. As such, the government will almost certainly set priorities with race in mind as to which NIH should implement—and may also need to compel researchers to implement.

Most government agencies, for example, have adopted the five categories devised by the Office of Management and Budget: White; Black or African American? American Indian or Alaska Native. Asian; and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. And it is very difficult to balance these with the kind of minimalist descriptions that this exhibition requires.

But even as the government struggles to manage some of the report’s recommendations, the scientific community and the journals in which it publishes have no reason to shy away from them. The report makes it clear that failure to change is just bad science.

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