An anti-racist action plan for studying the human genome

An anti-racist action plan for studying the human genome
© Getty Images

Throughout my career as a leader in genomics, I have frequently talked with my research colleagues about how we could stamp out racism in our field. Those conversations have often felt uncomfortable.

All areas of science have spent decades trying to envision and create an anti-racist research enterprise. In genomics, it feels more personal.

Genomics has taught us that humans are roughly 99.9% identical at the DNA sequence level, with myriad stories emerging about humanity’s common traits and ancestry. But genomics grew out of the field of genetics, which comes with a troubled history — one in which misused science and outright pseudoscience were used to justify racism. 

ADVERTISEMENT

That is why the genomics community is determined to purposefully examine every aspect of what we do and how we do it. Combatting racism is one step towards attaining a socially responsible, more inclusive future for genomics. The field must offer 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 brought us closer to that goal. 

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

The authors propose an ethos: a fundamental, anti-racist approach for cultivating diversity in science. As scientists and, more importantly, as humans, the genomics community must adopt a new model of behavior, both within the workplace and by our personal actions. 

“Without discomfort, racism cannot be challenged,” the paper’s lead author, sociologist Dr. Shameka Thomas, writes. “Anti-racism means recognizing that privilege, in particular white privilege, is a reality that has enabled some groups greater access to research opportunities and research training experiences that are not solely based on individual merit.”

Those can be hard words for people who consider themselves allies to the causes of anti-racism and diversity. But, as she notes, that discomfort is necessary for progress.

As a white man, I am willing to embrace my own discomfort to help create change.

My NHGRI leadership team and I have been frustrated by the lack of diversity in both the field in general and the genomics workforce specifically. In the last year, we have been critically introspective about the changes that we must make, and embrace the model described by Thomas and her colleagues.

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

This culture should empower scientists to talk about topics like race and diversity in ways that support introspection and reflection, to intentionally cultivate an anti-racist environment for all employees. We should also strive to recruit a greater diversity of candidates for leadership positions.

ADVERTISEMENT

In January, we released an action agenda for building a diverse genomics workforce, a living document to guide our institute in enhancing the diversity of the genomics workforce. NHGRI is also active in the NIH UNITE Initiative, an expansive effort to end structural racism in biomedical research.

To inform an anti-racist future, we must also examine and discuss the historical misuse of genetics. In December, we will host a virtual symposium that brings together scholars and researchers to consider the history of eugenics and scientific racism and their complex legacies in the modern health sciences.

Making genomics more diverse goes beyond enhancing diversity in the workforce. Such efforts must also focus on the broader diversity of the research enterprise, including research participants. The character of a scientific field affects all it touches, and funding agencies such as NHGRI have a duty to build an anti-racist ethos into everything that we do given our influence and reach.

Today’s research culture must be one of participation, not mere observation. The model we envision requires scientists to not only push for institutional policy changes, but also make personal, long-term commitments to reexamine their own daily thoughts and actions. We as a genomics community must be willing to confront our discomfort to enact enduring change.

Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). NHGRI funds at the forefront of genomics to improve human health.