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Researchers Propose Guidelines on the Use of Race and Ethnicity in Genomics Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – An interdisciplinary group of researchers from Stanford University today proposed ten principles that it hopes will limit the misuse of racial and ethnic categories in future genetic research.
In an open letter published today in Genome Biology, the researchers noted that the rise in human genetic variation research in recent years has “rekindled debates about the connection between genetic traits and human ‘racial’ difference.”
As a result, they write in the paper, the research community is “divided on the question of whether racial categorization is an appropriate means of organizing potentially useful genetic data or a pernicious reification of historically destructive typologies.”
In an effort to explore these issues, faculty from the humanities, social and life sciences, law and medical schools at Stanford began meeting in 2003 for a series of discussions and workshops. The guidelines published today grew out of those discussions and are intended “to promote interdisciplinary dialog on these important concerns and to encourage responsible practices,” the authors write.
Among the principles outlined in the paper is a declaration that the group does not believe that there is a scientific basis “for any claim that the pattern of human genetic variation supports hierarchically organized categories of race and ethnicity.”
The authors also note that “racial and ethnic categories are created and maintained within sociopolitical contexts and have shifted in meaning over time.”
The group also cautions against making the “naive leap” to a genetic explanation for differences in complex traits, “especially for human behavioral traits such as IQ scores, tendency towards violence, and degree of athleticism.”
In addition, they “discourage the use of race as a proxy for biological similarity and support efforts to minimize the use of the categories of race and ethnicity in clinical medicine, maintaining focus on the individual rather than the group.”
The authors also call for improved education and outreach regarding human genetic variation, and recommend that researchers, journalists, “and others engaged in the translation of research results” collaborate on efforts to “avoid overstatement of the contribution of genetic variation to phenotypic variation.”
The researchers said they hope that scientific data about human genetic variation “might undermine spurious popular beliefs about the existence of biologically distinct human races and beliefs that support racist ideologies.”

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