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Racing ahead in the polls

26 September 2011
Appeared in BioNews 626
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.

Looking for race in all the wrong places: analyzing the lack of productivity in the ongoing debate about race and genetics
Morris Foster, Human Genetics |  09/09
30 July 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
Last year, the Progress Educational Trust (PET) conducted a poll as part of its Wellcome Trust supported project 'Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?' At three public events held under this project's auspices, attendees were asked to suggest questions for PET to put to the public, and the resulting online poll elicited 637 responses...
9 January 2012 - by Sandy Starr 
The Progress Educational Trust's 2011 project Genes, Ancestry and Racial Identity: Does It Matter Where Your Genes Come From?, supported by the Wellcome Trust, sought to debate race and ancestry in the context of genetics and to explore the connection (or lack of connection) between genetics and the concept of 'race'...
21 November 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The study of genetic diversity between ethnic groups can help explain the ways in which race influences our biology and susceptibility to disease. But what do we mean by 'race', exactly? These issues are considered in the collection of essays 'What's the use of race? Modern governance and the biology of difference', edited by Dr Ian Whitmarsh and Dr David Jones...
24 October 2011 - by Anoushka Shepherd 
In this three-part documentary, George Alagiah recounts the largely untold story of mixed race Britain and the many love stories that overcame extreme social hardship to create it...
17 October 2011 - by Nishat Hyder 
'One of the very few universal laws of history is this: whenever and wherever people of different races have been brought together they have always mixed. For most of human history the power of sex managed to undermine the power of race'...
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