Thursday, September 18, 2008

What do you mean by "race"? A call for standards and empirical ethics research.

You've probably read an article or two that reports the results of a race-based investigation. Perhaps it was a study of health disparities, a survey of patient attitudes, an examination of a race-based intervention or new medication to be marketed to a specific race-based demographic. If you wanted to do a systematic review of these papers, you might be vexed by the difficulty of finding a common, valid definition of "race". As a socially-constructed category, defining the limits of race and ethnicity is a slippery business and one that has a problematic past in the history of science and medicine. With this in mind, Vural Ozdemir, Janice E. Graham and Beatrice Godard make a call for clarity in "Race as a variable in pharmacogenomics science: from empirical ethics to publication standards" (Pharmacogenet Genomics. 2008 Oct;18(10):837-41. - PubMed CiteULike). The authors argue for the use of empirical ethics research to inform the development of new publication standards to "minimize the drift from descriptive to attributive use of race in publications". In this context, empirical ethics, or "applied social science methodologies … to better understand, for example, the 'lived' experiences of user groups", would identify blind-spots in predictive health research and would help researchers, regulators, policy-makers, and editors "differentiate between an imprecise (yet measurable) predictive biomarker, from a construct such as race".

Given the uproar around BiDiL and other race-based pharmacogenomic ventures, the authors have made a timely, if not over-due, call for publishers and ethics researchers to collaborate in developing standards for the use of the controversial category in published research. - J.O.

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