Throughout 2011 the charity that publishes BioNews, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) has been running a Wellcome Trust supported project entitled 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?'. The project, which was conceived as a response to the increasing prominence of controversies concerning genetics and 'race' and of direct-to-consumer genetic tests which (purportedly) reveal where one's ancestors come from, is now concluding with an online poll which we'd like to encourage all BioNews readers to complete.
In 2007, Nobel Laureate and genetics pioneer Professor James Watson was prohibited from speaking at London's Science Museum, after reportedly saying that black people were less intelligent than whites. In 2009, Channel 4 broadcast a season of programmes under the heading 'Race: Science's Last Taboo' (including Dr Aarathi Prasad's programme 'Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?').
Tracing one's ancestry has become a popular British pastime, as can be seen from the popularity of the BBC series 'Who Do You Think You Are?'. Scottish historian Alistair Moffat wrote a comment piece for BioNews about his own feelings when he discovered that he wasn't as Scottish as he thought, while the book he wrote on this subject together with genetic researcher Jim Wilson was reported on and later reviewed in BioNews.
Some related articles that we've published on BioNews in 2011 are clearly the result of clever marketing, such as 'Do Europeans share King Tut's DNA?', where the Tutankhamun DNA Project offered a discount on DNA profiling for anyone who turned out to be a close living, male relative of the king. I wonder if there's an equivalent free test if I turn out to be a female descendent of the Queen of Sheba? But discussion about genes, ancestry and race isn't all light entertainment - recent BioNews articles about the IVF success rates among women of Asian and African extraction have linked people's ethnic background with medical outcomes.
Also this year, a team of US geneticists argued that a Euro-centric approach to genetic research has led to a neglect of the rare genetic diseases particular to certain minorities. But it isn't all bad news - elsewhere BioNews reported on an international team of researchers from India, Mauritius, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the UK, who used genome-wide association studies to identify common genetic variants underlying predisposition to type 2 diabetes in South Asians.
A possible danger when addressing this area was raised by anthropologist Morris Foster in his paper 'Looking for race in all the wrong places: analysing the lack of productivity in the ongoing debate about race and genetics', which argues that 'scientific proponents of the biological meaning of racial and other social categories and social critics of the use of racial and other social categories in biological research are talking past one another' (1). This is something that PET tried to avoid in the three public debates it organised in 2011 as part of this project - Is There a Place for Race in Biology?, Will Pharmacogenetics Lead to Colour-Coded Medicine? and Genetic Medalling.
Not only were the speaker panels at these events multidisciplinary, the audience was as well. And in the PET tradition, following introductory presentations the bulk of each debate's running time was devoted to discussion with audience input. Furthermore, audience members were asked to suggest questions which they wanted to see put to the public in an online poll. Six questions were chosen from these suggestions
BioNews readers, this is your chance to participate in the 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity' project and help PET to gauge public and professional understanding of the connection (or lack of connection) between race and genetics. Our readers are an eclectic bunch, and so we're especially keen for you to take part.