This article just appeared in the (conservative) City Journal, and is written by James Lee, a behavioral geneticist at the University at Minnesota. What Lee reports made steam issue from under my collar, for he claims that the National Institutes of Health, a U.S. government science institute, has a huge genetics and “trait” database of several million Americans. The genetic data appear to be thorough, based on genome scans, and the traits associated with each person’s genome include education, ethnicity (“race”), intelligence, income, and occupation. You can imagine how rich that dataset is for mining. And yet the NIH is restricting scientists’ access to the data to projects it apparently considers ideologically kosher.
Remember that the NIH is completely funded by the American taxpayers, so those data were accumulated with our money. To me, this means that any researcher with a valid project should have access to the data. But apparently some projects are more valid than others.
Click to read.
Here’s Lee’s description of the hard time geneticists have in getting the data when their project sounds “iffy”, and by that I mean any project that has to do with heredity and intelligence (presumably IQ or a similar measure). Note that none of the attempts to get the data have been to do projects on ethnicity and IQ, which of course are considered taboo by many (readers may want to either echo or refute that taboo). Check out the second paragraph of the excerpt below, which I’ve put in bold.
American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship: exclusion from access to the data necessary to conduct analyses, let alone publish results. Case in point: the National Institutes of Health now withholds access to an important database if it thinks a scientist’s research may wander into forbidden territory. The source at issue, the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP), is an exceptional tool, combining genome scans of several million individuals with extensive data about health, education, occupation, and income. It is indispensable for research on how genes and environments combine to affect human traits. No other widely accessible American database comes close in terms of scientific utility.
My colleagues at other universities and I have run into problems involving applications to study the relationships among intelligence, education, and health outcomes. Sometimes, NIH denies access to some of the attributes that I have just mentioned, on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” Sometimes, it demands updates about ongoing research, with the implied threat that it could withdraw usage if it doesn’t receive satisfactory answers. In some cases, NIH has retroactively withdrawn access for research it had previously approved.
Note that none of the studies I am referring to include inquiries into race or sex differences. Apparently, NIH is clamping down on a broad range of attempts to explore the relationship between genetics and intelligence.
It’s hard to believe that the NIH is restricting data that might be used to show any relationship between genes and intelligence, even within one ethnic group. We already have data on genes implicated in academic achievement (which is correlated with IQ); those data are a big part of Kathryn Paige Harden‘s book The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality, a book I reviewed for the Washington Post and also discussed on this website. As I recall, Harden’s genome-wide association study found nearly 1300 genomic sites associated with variation in academic achievement among the American European (“white”) population. Intriguingly, many of those sites were active in the brain. That in itself is of considerable interest, though Harden’s claim that this variation would help us create “level playing fields” for secondary-school students seemed unjustified. But even finding genes associated with intelligence would tell us a lot about the developmental genetics of an important human trait.
Lee also explains why the NIH should NOT be a censor of valid research projects:
What is NIH’s justification? Studies of intelligence do not pose any greater threat to the dignity of their participants than research based on non-genetic factors. With the customary safeguards in place, research activities such as genetically predicting an individual’s academic performance need be no more “stigmatizing” than predicting academic performance based on an individual’s family structure during childhood.
The cost of this censorship is profound. On a practical level, many of the original data-generating studies were set up with the explicit goal of understanding risk factors for various diseases. Since intelligence and education are also risk factors for many of these diseases, denying researchers usage of these data stymies progress on the problems the studies were funded to address. Scientific research should not have to justify itself on those grounds, anyway. Perhaps the most elemental principle of science is that the search for truth is worthwhile, regardless of its practical benefits.
NIH’s responsibility is to protect the safety and privacy of research participants, not to enforce a party line. Indeed, no apparent legal basis exists for these restrictions. NIH enforces hundreds of regulations, but you will search in vain for any grounds on which to ban “stigmatizing” research—whatever that even means.
This is a no brainer. The NIH has NO business vetting the “political correctness” of research, and since nobody is investigating The Taboo Question—racial (or “ethnic” differences in intelligence—that issue doesn’t even come up. The only reason to prohibit “genetics of IQ” studies is a strict (almost Marxist) anti-hereditarianism based on the fear that there may be a genetic basis to differences in IQ. But we already KNOW that from studies of adoptions and relatives, which show that about 50-60% of variation in IQ among people is due to variation in their genes. The NIH appears to be afraid of being canceled. That is a hell of a way to do scence!
And I can’t imagine why the NIH would even think of restricting the data for any other studies. It seems to be IQ that’s the sticking point here, and that’s unconscionable. The data belong to the American public, and to American scientists, because the American public paid for it.
I’ve always object to the demonization of research that gives results that are politically or ideologically unpalatable, but this goes beyond the pale. The government cannot withhold data paid for by us on the grounds that it might yield results that could offend people.
If a researcher has a valid reason to request these data, and the NIH refuses because of possible “stigmatizatization,” then I would say that a lawsuit is in order.