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Hastings Center News

New Hastings Project: How Can We Responsibly Study the Genetics of Behavioral Traits?

Scientists have high hopes for using “polygenic risk scores” to better understand social and behavioral characteristics such as intelligence and obesity. But much behavioral genetics research has an ugly history and contemporary research risks exacerbating health inequities. A new Hastings Center project is exploring how this research can be done responsibly, in ways that minimize harms and maximize benefits.

Erik Parens, a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, is leading the three-year project, which is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the JPB Foundation.

Scientists are already using new techniques to investigate the genetic influences on behaviors and capabilities ranging from various forms of mental illness to educational attainment. This research produces “polygenic risks scores,” which are intended to capture, for any individual, the net effect of hundreds or thousands of genetic variants, each of which alone has just a tiny influence on a given behavior or capability.

Many envision great benefits from polygenic scores – including that they, combined with other factors, could lead to the development of individualized interventions in education, health care, and elsewhere. However, using genetics to explain social and behavioral attributes has an ugly history and is in danger of being appropriated by those who want to say that social and economic inequality is natural and unalterable.

The project will facilitate a frank and rigorous conversation among diverse experts who are hopeful about the benefits of this research and those who have concerns about it. The co-principal investigator is Michelle N. Meyer, an assistant professor at Geisinger. Senior advisors are Vanessa Northington Gamble, of George Washington University, and Paul Appelbaum, of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The working group consists of experts from a range of fields, including behavioral economics, research ethics, genetics, health disparities, medicine, psychology, philosophy, and medical anthropology.

“Bringing researchers and scholars together to speak over time about ethically fraught and scientifically complex questions is at the heart of The Hastings Center’s mission,” says Parens. “It is a great, if somewhat daunting, honor to lead this initiative.”  

Even if this working group cannot reach consensus regarding whether and why various forms of such research are or are not ethically acceptable, it will develop advice for a range of stakeholders about how to conduct the research and disseminate its results in ways that minimize its harms and maximize its benefits.