Genetic tests move onto geography agenda

August 29, 2003

Geographers, famed for their interdisciplinary approach to research, fear that the field of human genetic testing could potentially open the floodgates to greater social and political discrimination depending on the results.

Susan Smith, Ogilvie professor of geography at Edinburgh University, said genetic testing could be the next big thing for geography research because so little was known about how the fledgling science could affect environmental and social structures and government policy.

Professor Smith will have the chance to raise the issue at next week's Royal Geographical Society annual conference in London where she will sit on a panel that will discuss geography and the future of higher education.

She said: "It seems to me that one of the most pressing issue is to get to grips with the issues of genetic testing. I am interested in the way advances in human genetics are affecting people's ability to access financial services. It seems to be the next big social divide.

"We already know that the most significant decider of health is spatial.

Basically, wealthy people have fewer health problems and this is most accurately expressed through geography. Once we are making judgements about people's genetic make-up then the whole agenda enlarges."

Up to 1,000 geographers from around the world will attend the three-day RGS conference. A common theme will be the future of geography in a higher education system that is changing as a result of increased concentration of research funding, the effect this will have on the research universities carry out and how they structure the research they do.

David Livingstone, professor of geography at Queen's University Belfast, who will join professor Smith on the panel, said geography's greatest strength - its multidiciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to research - was also its potential greatest weakness.

He said: "I think what will be important over the next few years is the identity of geography within modern academic institutions, bridging - as it does - the arts, humanities, sciences and social sciences.

"It occupies a strategic position, interpreted by some people as a weakness. But the discipline has existed for 150 years; it has been reinvented and had internal transformations. I see this constant internal dialogue as a strength."

Details: www.rgs.org

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