The Volokh Conspiracy

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Should Scientists Use "Race" as a Proxy for Genetics?


Nature, last month (paywall):

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon require [based on new federal legislation] researchers and companies seeking approval for late-stage clinical trials to submit a plan for ensuring diversity among trial participants…. The diversity requirement arrives in the wake of a 2022 report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, which found that, although the representation of white women in clinical trials has improved, progress has "largely stalled" for minority racial and ethnic groups.

New York Times, yesterday:

Grappling with the deep history of racism in Western science, the National Academies of Science on Tuesday released guidelines recommending that scientists not use race as a category in genetic studies.

The guidelines, produced in response to a directive from the National Institutes of Health, noted that racial categories were poor proxies for genetic diversity and that social and environmental factors, like poverty and injustice, were often overlooked.

One possible distinction between these scenarios is that while everyone might agree that "race" is not a good proxy for genetics, it's important to have "representation" of minority groups in late-stage clinical trials so that so members of these groups have confidence in the results, while there is no similar concern in genetic studies. However, as I've pointed out before, there is no reason Americans should think that "Hispanic" or "Black" or "Asian" are medically significant classifications, but not much genetically "narrower" (because historically more genetically isolated) groups like "Ashkenazic Jews" or "Icelanders" unless the authorities told them to be worried about the former categories.

Indeed, even if one thinks that "race" correlates sufficiently with genetics to be medically significant, "Hispanics" can be of any race or any combination thereof, "Asian American" includes Austronesians, Caucasians, and East Asians, and "Black" Americans have a large admixture of European ancestry. In other words, the standard American "racial" categories that were adopted for entirely different purposes but are used by default in medical and scientific research are at odds with what racialists consider to be "race."

For more on related matters, including how FDA and NIH came to require many biomedical companies to use crude "racial" classifications to begin with, see chapter 6 of Classified.