Scientists Must Consider the Risk of Racist Misappropriation of Research

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No well-intentioned researcher would expect that their research will be used to justify violence. But following the racist massacre of 10 Black people in a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket on May 14, one of us experienced just that. We are joining other researchers in condemning the use of genetics as a justification for racism and hate.

In a rambling 180-page screed posted online just before the shooting, the Buffalo shooter appears to write so as to emulate an academic monograph. To justify his racist, white supremacist worldview, he cites recent advances in human molecular gene research to falsely claim that there are inherent biological differences between races. While the misuse of science to support racism is not new ,, this latest atrocity should be a wake-up call for geneticists and all members of the scientific community to reevaluate how science is being conducted and communicated and how we can improve.

Let us first correct the record regarding the science. In his document, the shooter contorts many scientific studies, including the findings from a 2018 genetic study co-authored by one of us (Wedow), to try and “prove” that white people have a genetic intellectual advantage over Black people. The 2018 study cited by the shooter aimed to find genetic variation associated with years of completed schooling and cognition. It collected DNA from one million people with European-estimated genetic ancestry. The study sought to identify genetic variants that were correlated with cognitive performance and years of schooling. Importantly, this study revealed that the genetic variants found in this study are context- and time-dependent. A different time, place, and social structure , might reveal a different set variants that are statistically related. Genetics don’t predetermine whether one person will have fewer years of schooling or score higher on a cognitive performance exam than another. The 2018 study concluded that the environment plays a substantial role in shaping these outcomes.

The shooter’s document deceptively extracts data from the 2018 study, combining it with another genetics study to present statistical artifacts to bolster the shooter’s false claims. The shooter could have concluded that Black people have a greater genetic intelligence advantage than whites if the initial study had been conducted on one million people of African genetic ancestry. Even if we ignore the dangerous and inaccurate conflation of race and genetic ancestry, the shooter’s argument seems bad and completely invalid science. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there are differences in cognitive performance among racial, ethnic, or genetic ancestral groups.

Although the 2018 genomic study does not make any claims about genetic differences between racial groups, or any groups for that matter, the results of a study do not prevent others from constructing alternate realities. The Buffalo shooter is just one example of many who have misused genetic studies. He probably didn’t come up with his interpretation of it in a vacuum. He is part of a long and dark history that has been violent. White supremacy has used genetics time and again. It is too easy for scientists to point fingers at others when the document of the shooter is not placed in this larger context.

We scientists could all view the 2018 study as nothing more than the unfortunate choice of weapon for a domestic terrorist driven by delusions instead of facts. But, this allows for a level of moral disengagement which just doesn’t cut it anymore. We live in an age that is filled with mistrust, disinformation, and deep polarization. Researchers cannot assume that their research will be able to weather the storm or provide a single interpretation. Scientists must consider their moral responsibilities as researchers of this research, no matter how difficult and challenging it may be. We will continue to believe science can speak for itself.

Ethical research in science requires careful weighing of the risks and benefits. This weighing takes into account risks to individuals, but not wider risks to society. Incentives have been given to the scientific community to delegate responsibility to existing regulations and review bodies to perform these calculations. Research involving human participants must be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB). Researchers working with human subjects in the U.S. will also need to comply with federal policies, such as the Common rule HTML1. These safeguards, however, cannot guarantee that research maximizes its benefits and minimizes harms. There are no regulations that explicitly consider the social consequences of research. IRBs are not allowed to consider the wider social implications of research, instead focusing on individual-level risk.

Most genomic studies don’t undergo thorough evaluations of the potential risks and benefits. These studies use de-identified genome data, which is data that is not tied to a name or any other identifiable characteristic. They are therefore not considered research on human subjects. These studies are not subject to the Common Rule and IRB approval. While there is little risk to participants, the results and communication from these studies can have an impact on real people.

We are not advocating academic censorship. Scientists can’t and shouldn’t be expected to anticipate every potential misuse or risk of their research. This burden is too heavy to bear for one community. However, the document of the shooter shows that minimizing one’s responsibility for mitigating the social risks arising from a body of research doesn’t make these risks disappear.

Scientists who are funded by taxpayer dollars are charged with finding truth and innovating to ensure the well-being of all people. It’s time to rethink the way we weigh the benefits and risks of research in order to realize this goal. What if we encouraged future generations of scientists, for example, to consider the social consequences of their work as well as the scientific impact of their research? What if funding agencies, who help to direct the research process by deciding who and what to fund, required researchers to create plans to mitigate against potential social risk. What if genetics was taught in schools so that it reflects real human variation and not incorrectly reflect determinism?

Unintended consequences can result from scientific interpretation. It is simply not worth it to continue as is.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

    Robbee Wedow is a research fellow at the Broad Institute of M.I.T. a research fellow at the Broad Institute of M.I.T.

      Daphne O. Martschenko is a postodoctoral research fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

        Sam Trejo is

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