Can genetic research spur racist attitudes?

November 18th, 2008 - 12:55 pm ICT by IANS  

Toronto, Nov 18 (IANS) People might be different in many ways but genetically they are quite similar. However, is it possible that genetic research may evoke racist attitudes, asks University of Alberta’s Tim Caulfield. He organised a seminar to examine the issue.Last year, Nobel Prize winning geneticist James Watson claimed there are genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence. These comments made international headlines and Watson later apologised.

Caulfield knows that studying racial groups is important. For example, if a researcher is studying health disparities in the US, they want to know why African Americans have poorer outcomes than those of European descent.

“In that case you’re not saying that there’s a biological difference because you’re incorporating social and economic factors to that definition,” said Caulfield.

Accordingly, Caulfield brought together an interdisciplinary group to discuss the concerns of the scientific community and come up with ways to avoid it. This group included professionals in anthropology, bioethics, clinical medicine and law.

“It was a very interesting group of individuals that haven’t always agreed in the past,” said Caulfield. They managed to come together and agree on this topic, though, detailing a number of steps to ensure biomedical research doesn’t stir up racism.

“For example, scientists must justify in the study why they’re studying that certain group. When a discovery is made, researchers are to ensure the evidence is defined properly in the hard copy of the study and to the media,” according to an Alberta release.

Besides, Caulfied’s group will continue to track the ways published studies reference ethnic groups. “We’re trying to trace how race-based studies are described in various stages.”

“We’re continuing to study the issue in how race is represented,” said Caulfield, whose study will appear in January edition of Genome Medicine.

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