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Hastings Center Report Discusses Responsible Social, Behavioral Genomics Research

NEW YORK – A report from the Hastings Center suggests that research comparing groups defined by race, ethnicity, or genetic ancestry should require a compelling justification to be ethically conducted, funded, or published, and offers recommendations on how to do so.

The report, written by a working group of 19 scholars in the social and behavioral genomics field and published in The Ethical Implications of Social and Behavioral Genomics last week, argues that studies in this field should show that their likely benefits outweigh the risks to the populations being studied in addition to evidence for delivering scientifically valid results.

Failure to do so, they argue, can contribute to social and behavioral genomics research being used to advance unjust social policies, or to undercut efforts to create more just social policies.

The authors classified two types of research as being of concern, as these topics are "more ethically fraught than others" and therefore deserve particular attention.

Under research of "heightened concern," the group called out three areas. The first involves work that potentially affects a group's social status, such as obesity, substance abuse, intelligence, educational attainment, income, and criminalized behaviors.

The second involves research into phenotypes that contribute to harmful stereotypes about minorities and which seek biological explanations for social identities, such as financial prowess, academic diligence, hysteria, hypersexuality, musical beat synchronization, and athleticism.

Also included is research into phenotypes central to a minority group's identity. These include sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and gender identity. 

Research of greatest concern comprises studies on sensitive characteristics that would compare groups defined by race, ethnicity, or genetic ancestry, particularly where one could easily misinterpret genetic ancestry as race or ethnicity.

"All members of the working group have serious doubts about the scientific validity of group comparison research today regarding [social and behavioral genomic] phenotypes," the authors wrote.

They added that the scientific validity of such research "should be an ethical precondition of conducting, funding, or publishing it."

Members of the report's working group disagreed on whether to call for justifications beyond assurances of responsible conduct and communication in cases of group comparison research on sensitive traits where such research is scientifically valid.

Group comparison research is not currently scientifically valid, they wrote, but they questioned whether it should be allowed to proceed should it become valid in the future.

"While some of us believe that researchers should be free to pursue any scientifically valid research, others of us would additionally require a compelling justification of the study’s risk-benefit profile" they wrote.

The report laid out several recommendations for conducting research into fraught social and behavioral genetics topics in an ethical manner. These include engaging with stakeholders, justifying the use and definition of "populations," justifying phenotype definition and measurement, conducting studies with adequate power, replicating findings in hold-out samples, conducting within-family analyses where possible, and extending research benefits to diverse people.

The report also made several recommendations for better communicating research into these topics. These comprised developing a "key points" box that includes how results should and shouldn't be interpreted or used; further diverting misinterpretations or misuse via FAQs, videos, and careful press releases; reporting unexaggerated effect sizes in abstracts and graphs; embedding caveats and context in graphs and tables; defining and justifying the use of "populations"; and moving away from population language that is easily conflated with race or ethnicity.