Racial Meanings and Scientific Methods

Changing Policies for NIH-Sponsored Publications Reporting Human Variation

In this essay, the author argues that research on genetic differences between racial and ethnic groups has the potential to change political landscapes the way Jim Crow laws did a century ago. The author identifies inconsistent government policies, introduces new concepts, proposes policies and cites research to support her argument. For example, some geneticists are studying Ashkenazi Jewish women because they are marginally more likely than others to have a genetic mutation that is linked to a higher-than-average risk of breast cancer. The author states that, in fact, Ashkenazis have a slightly lower rate of actual breast cancer than other American women. Furthermore, only 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers are thought to be genetic. The fact that this subgroup has been singled out for study leads many to believe Jews run a high risk of breast cancer and could encourage employers, health insurers and others to discriminate against them. The author recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services prohibit their staff and grantees from publishing claims about genetics associated with race, ethnicity, nationality, etc., except when groups have statistically significant disparities and a standing committee decides that investigating those disparities would benefit public health.