An anti-racist action plan for the study of the human genome

Throughout my career as a leader in genomics, I have often discussed with my fellow researchers how we might eradicate racism in our field. These conversations have often been uncomfortable.

All fields of science have spent decades trying to imagine and create an anti-racist research enterprise. In genomics, it seems more personal.

Genomics has taught us that humans are about 99.9% identical at the DNA sequence level, with a myriad of stories emerging about common traits and human ancestry. But genomics arose from the field of genetics, which is accompanied by a troubled story – one in which misused science and outright pseudoscience have been used to justify racism.

That’s why the genomic community is determined to deliberately examine every aspect of what we do and how we do it. The fight against racism is a step towards a socially responsible and more inclusive future for genomics. The field should provide supportive and collaborative environments for a diverse community of researchers and health professionals.

Today, a group of 10 social and behavioral scientists from diverse backgrounds has brought us closer to this goal.

The researchers, from the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), were led by Vence Bonham, an investigator from NHGRI, acting deputy director of NHGRI, and a leader in the study of health disparities and health equity issues. The comment, published by scientists in the journal Advances in human genetics and genomics, describes a future of genomics with conventions and integrated anti-racism approaches – a future that will facilitate more innovative research by very diverse and creative minds.

The authors propose a philosophy: a fundamental and anti-racist approach to cultivating diversity in science. As scientists and, more importantly, as humans, the genomic community must adopt a new pattern of behavior, both in the workplace and through our personal actions.

“Without embarrassment, racism cannot be challenged,” writes the lead author of the article, sociologist Dr Shameka Thomas. “Anti-racism means recognizing that privilege, especially white privilege, is a reality that has made it easier for certain groups to access research opportunities and research training experiences that are not uniquely based on individual merit. “

These words can be harsh for people who see themselves as allies of the causes of anti-racism and diversity. But, as she notes, this discomfort is necessary for progress.

As a white man, I am ready to come to terms with my own discomfort to help create change.

My NHGRI leadership team and I have been frustrated with the lack of diversity both in the field in general and in the genomics workforce in particular. Over the past year we have done a critical soul-searching on the changes we need to make and have adopted the model described by Thomas and his colleagues.

To cultivate and embrace an anti-racist environment, we must be intentional and aware of our character, culture and climate. We must foster a workplace rooted in safety and openness, where scientists of color and people of other diverse backgrounds can speak out without fear of judgment or retaliation.

This culture should allow scientists to talk about topics such as race and diversity in a way that encourages introspection and reflection, in order to intentionally cultivate an anti-racist environment for all employees. We must also strive to recruit a greater diversity of candidates for leadership positions.

In January, we published a action program for building a diverse genomics workforce, a living document to guide our institute in improving the diversity of the genomics workforce. NHGRI is also active in the NIH UNITE Initiative, a broad effort to end structural racism in biomedical research.

To illuminate an anti-racist future, we must also examine and discuss the historical misuse of genetics. In December we will organize a virtual conference which brings together academics and researchers to examine the history of eugenics and scientific racism and their complex legacies in modern health sciences.

Making genomics more diverse goes beyond improving the diversity of the workforce. Such efforts should also focus on the greater diversity of the research enterprise, including research participants. The character of a scientific field affects everything it touches, and funding agencies such as NHGRI have a duty to embed an anti-racist ethic in everything we do given our influence and reach.

Today’s research culture must be one of participation and not of mere observation. The model we envision requires scientists to not only lobby for institutional policy changes, but also to make long-term personal commitments to reexamine their own daily thoughts and actions. As a genomic community, we must be prepared to face our discomfort to implement lasting change.

Eric D. Green, MD, Ph.D., is the Director of National Institute for Research on the Human Genome (NHGRI) at the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH). NHGRI funds at the forefront of genomics to improve human health.

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