Wrestling with Social/Behavioral Genomics: Risks, Potential Benefits, and Ethical Responsibility

Awarded Scholars:
Erik Parens , Hastings Center
Paul Appelbaum, Columbia University
Vanessa Gamble, George Washington University
Michelle Meyer, Geisinger Health Systems
Project Date:
Jul 2019
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge

Co-funded by the JPB Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Learn more about the Working Group

Erik Parens, Paul Appelbaum, Vanessa Gamble, and Michelle Meyer will lead a working group that will explore the potential risks and benefits of social science genomics research and determine steps that can minimize the potential for harm and maximize the potential benefits. Polygenic indices (PGIs; or more commonly, “polygenic scores”) are a relatively new genomics-based tool used in research on many health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, and schizophrenia. PGIs are increasingly used to understand social phenotypes such as subjective wellbeing, the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors, economic outcomes, and educational attainment. Although the use of PGIs (and biology more broadly) in social science research has the potential to improve our understanding of behavioral and social outcomes and thus our understanding of environmental influences, previous attempts to integrate biology and biological explanations with the social sciences have an unsavory history. The working group will address two key aims. First, to the extent possible, the group will explore the difference between (a) phenotypes that are and are not ethically acceptable targets of PGI-based investigations, and (b) types of analysis that are and are not ethically acceptable, and articulate the reasons supporting those distinctions. The second aim is to identify steps that can be taken by researchers, funders, IRBs, journals, policymakers, and the media to increase the chances that ethically-acceptable phenotypic targets and analyses are pursued, and that they are pursued in a way that minimizes the potential for harm and maximizes the potential for benefit.


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