By Daphne Martschenko

In early December 2018, I was invited to present at the Polygenic Prediction and Its Application in the Social Sciences conference at the University of Southern California, hosted by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC) – a group of social scientists who are now conducting genetic studies on fraught social outcomes such as educational attainment (Lee et al., 2018), social mobility (Belsky et al., 2018), and household deprivation (Hill et al., 2016). Behavioral genetics is an interdisciplinary field combining psychology with molecular genetics. Researchers have gone beyond identifying how heritable (genetically-influenced) a trait or outcome is, to trying to pinpoint the genetic variants that are predictive of it. The past five years have seen increased calls from behavioral genetics researchers to consider incorporating ‘genetically-informed research’ into education policy and curriculum (Asbury & Plomin, 2013; Kovas, Tikhomirova, Selita, Tosto, & Malykh, 2016; M. S. C. Thomas, Kovas, Meaburn, & Tolmie, 2015).

I was invited to this event because of my doctoral research: I explore the threats and ethical dilemmas that behavioral genetics research poses to equitable public education. I focus primarily on implications of ‘precision education’ – the idea that genetic data might inform education policy by being used to develop individualized education plans for students. I spoke on a panel focused on the responsible communication of social genomics.

My work is based on a mixed-methods study that examines the perspectives of American PreK-12 educators on ‘historically-burdened concepts’ in the postgenomic era (the period following the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003). Through focus groups and a national survey of teachers, I explored the interplay between educators’ understandings of intelligence, race, socioeconomic status, and genetics. In interviews, I spoke with socio-genomics researchers and bioethicists about the integration of genomic data into social and public policy. Through the connections I formed during these interviews I found myself at a conference largely comprised of researchers whose work differed dramatically from my own. and which I felt warranted caution, at the very least.

Engaging with sociogenomics

Behavior genetics is a sub-branch of sociogenomics. Sociogenomics is the study of “social life in molecular terms” (Robinson, 2005). The field is driven by two desires. The first is to identify the genes and pathways that regulate aspects of development, physiology and behavior that in turn influence sociality. The second is to determine how these genes and pathways are influenced by social life and social evolution. Sociogenomics has sought to identify the genetic variants that correlate with different behaviors and social outcomes, including caffeine-induced insomnia (Byrne et al., 2012), political orientation (Hatemi & McDermott, 2012), intelligence (Plomin & Stumm, 2018; Sniekers et al., 2017), educational attainment (Lee et al., 2018; Okbay et al., 2016), and ADHD (Middeldorp et al., 2016).

As a field of study, sociogenomics dates back to the 18th century and Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. It has been used to justify a number of politically and ethically problematic projects: discouraging the abolition of slavery (Evrie, 1868), resisting desegregation (Mayo, 1913), restricting immigration (Brigham, 1922), and generally validating socioeconomic (Galton, 1869) and racial inequalities (Shockley, 1972), while reinforcing White supremacist beliefs.

In academia we often speak to those who hold similar views. Academics are often placed in silos: economists, sociologists, engineers. Education is one of the rare spaces where these different silos merge. At the Faculty of Education in Cambridge, economists work alongside sociologists who work alongside anthropologists. My two supervisors are a perfect example of this: an economist and sociologist. The interdisciplinary nature of an education faculty has made me realize the value of having conversations across disciplines. This was the argument I put forth to the audience at the University of Southern California. I called for ‘adversarial collaboration’ within the context of an ugly history and uncertain future.

Adversarial Collaboration is a research partnership that brings together individuals from different, and at times opposing, disciplines and viewpoints in a joint research effort. The focus is on encouraging a process that leads to a deeper understanding of an issue. I first heard this term at an American Educational Research Association special interest group meeting; there did not seem to be much literature defining it at the time. I was beginning to work with two researchers on a piece about the implications of genetics research for education. It described what we were doing perfectly and the experience I’d been trying to put into words for a while. We were all education researchers, but our viewpoints on the integration of genomic data into education research and the possibilities and pitfalls of such an endeavor differed. We came together to create a paper exploring genetics and education in a context where social and racial disparities are systemic and fueled by racism and classism (Martschenko, Trejo, & Domingue, 2018).

The experience of presenting to differently-opinionated researchers forced me to think through my arguments more critically, and have readily available evidence to support my claims. More than usual, I had to think about my language and tone and keep the background and experiences of my audience in mind; the lexicon of a sociologist would not have resonated as clearly with this group. The experience raised a number of important questions: what is the aim of communication of research findings? Who are our intended audiences as we conduct research?

Beyond academia’s new borderlands

I believe that studying the implications of sociogenomics is important because genetics can readily be used to place individuals into different and at times problematic categories: abled or disabled, rich or poor, White or Black. These categorizations create borders between people and communities. Ideas and technologies currently being used by geneticists are creating a space — what I call a ‘new borderland’ — in which the genome becomes another way to categorize and differentiate between both individuals and populations. In an era of rising populism, austerity, and xenophobia, it is critical that genetics research does not threaten the already fragile position of historically marginalized groups.

I hope that my audience is an interdisciplinary one ¬ unified around the common goal of providing quality equitable education and treating others with respect. At the same time, I want my work to be accessible to those who may hold different viewpoints; I want to drive the conversation forward on what can, should, and needs to be done when it comes to safeguarding against the (mis)use of genetics-infused research in education. To achieve such an aim requires a level of openness and a willingness to listen on both ‘sides.’

In the end, whether we want it to or not, genetics-informed research in education will become a bigger topic of discussion. Policy makers will be asked to make decisions about it and ‘laypeople’ will form opinions based upon what they read in the popular media. Ignoring this reality would be a disservice to children in schools taught by teachers who have a strong influence on their academic achievement and trajectory. Genetic ideologies have long infused our ways of thinking about difference and ability. The power to predict the cognitive ability or educational attainment of an individual student is the power to predict how well one will do in life because Western society is structured in a way that rewards those with higher educational attainment and academic achievement. Tailoring education plans to a child’s genotype fascinates “because it leads to the edge of the possible” (Turkheimer, 2015, p. S38). As the conversation on incorporating genetics research findings into education continues, facilitating constructive conversations across ‘party lines’ will become more important than ever. I hope my experience at the University of Southern California is one of many that will force me to think outside of my academic silo.



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