Genes means coming clean

July 26, 1996

If you want a quiet life, do not do research into the genetics of behaviour. If you do, be prepared to participate in the noisy life that will follow. The same rule applies to the funders of such research.

A readiness to take some notice of public concern about this research is demonstrated by the Medical Research Council. It is setting up a workshop in the autumn to consider work on behavioural genetics and to decide on an ethical framework within which it can make decisions about what research it will fund.

This is a good thing. The public worries about the use to which such research could be put. It is justified in this worry by well-known historical precedents. Fears about research that links genes with intelligence cannot simply be dismissed as primitive fears about the unknown.

Once the MRC has aired these issues, preferably after gathering a wide range of views, it can be more confident about its funding decisions. One project it should then agree to fund is a Pounds 2 million study by Robert Plomin, of the Institute of Psychiatry. He wants to analyse the DNA of all twins born in the past two years to investigate links between genes and mild mental impairment.

His proposal has caused outcry in some quarters. But if anywhere is the right setting for such research, it is the Institute of Psychiatry. Plomin is working in its Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Research Centre, headed by Sir Michael Rutter. This was set up expressly to move research forward from the meaningless polarisation between nature and nurture.

Instead it attempts the much more difficult task of examining the interactions between the two. Environment, for example, can include internal biology, while genes can cause a person to set up environmental influences. Genes can set up a tendency to behave in a certain way, which is very different from causing a behaviour.

The only way to tackle such tendencies is by new mathematical techniques based on risk. The research can only be done by investigating environmental influences on behaviour. Otherwise the genetic tendencies could not be quantified. A multidisciplinary environment is also the most reasonable way of ensuring it is done responsibly.

But there is one thing more that the public should be requesting. Scientists have a responsibility to discuss their work with the public. The public funds their work. But even if it did not, the public would have to bear the work's sometimes painful consequences.

This is something that Robert Plomin seems unwilling to do. He has even been quoted in The Guardian as saying: "I am not worried by the ethics of what I'm doing and I don't want to discuss it in a public forum. I want to get on with the science of it."

It may be a pain to deal with fractious idiots who do not understand your work, but there is no such thing as a free lunch.

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