Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Close Nav

Don’t Even Go There

back to top
eye on the news

Don’t Even Go There

The National Institutes of Health now blocks access to an important database if it thinks a scientist’s research may enter “forbidden” territory. October 19, 2022
Technology and Innovation

A policy of deliberate ignorance has corrupted top scientific institutions in the West. It’s been an open secret for years that prestigious journals will often reject submissions that offend prevailing political orthodoxies—especially if they involve controversial aspects of human biology and behavior—no matter how scientifically sound the work might be. The leading journal Nature Human Behaviour recently made this practice official in an editorial effectively announcing that it will not publish studies that show the wrong kind of differences between human groups.

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 In some cases, NIH has retroactively withdrawn access for research it had previously approved.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.

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.

The restrictions appear to be invented to impede research on certain topics that anonymous bureaucrats with ideological motivations have decided are out of bounds. It’s impossible to know whether senior NIH officials have instigated the restrictions or merely accepted them tacitly. Perhaps they are unaware of the problem; officials far down the bureaucratic ladder are responsible for approving specific applications.

NIH has historically enjoyed high levels of public confidence in its professionalism and integrity. That trust is now deteriorating. The decline began with evidence that its personnel may have been complicit in blocking investigations of the possibility that Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese laboratory. The restrictions on scholars’ access to the dbGaP don’t have nearly the same public visibility as the Covid story, but they strike equally at the heart of NIH’s integrity.

The federal government was under no obligation to assemble the magnificent database that is the dbGaP. Now that it has done so at taxpayer expense, however, it does have an obligation to provide access to that database evenhandedly—not to allow it for some and deny it to others, based on the content of their research.

Photo: Ignatiev/iStock