Royal Named Co-Chair of National Academies Panel on Race and Genetics Research

Experts will address use of population labels in human genetics studies

Charmaine Royal will co-chair a national panel of experts that will recommend best practices for the use of “race,” ethnicity, ancestry, and other population descriptors in genetics
Charmaine Royal will co-chair a national panel of experts that will recommend best practices for the use of “race,” ethnicity, ancestry and other population descriptors in genetics.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine appointed Duke Professor Charmaine Royal as co-chair of a newly formed committee addressing challenging issues surrounding the use of “race” and other population labels in human genetics research.

Royal is the Robert O. Keohane Professor of African & African American Studies, Biology, Global Health, and Family Medicine & Community Health. She also serves as director of Duke’s Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference and the Duke Center for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.

Along with Aravinda Chakravarti of New York University, Royal is leading the Committee on Use of Race, Ethnicity, and Ancestry as Population Descriptors in Genomics Research. The 17-member committee comprises prominent researchers and scholars from a variety of relevant fields.

The committee is tasked with recommending best practices for the use of “race,” ethnicity, ancestry, and other population descriptors in genetics and genomics research in the United States and globally. As part of its charge, the committee will review and assess current practices, benefits and challenges as well as develop new feasible and practical approaches to advance appropriate use of population descriptors in genetics and genomics research.

“I am honored to have been invited to co-chair this critical and long overdue effort that many feel is poised to produce a landmark report,” Royal said. “The work is important, but it will also be hard. My hope is that the impacts of this study will be transformative and far-reaching, catalyzing sustained changes in conceptualizations and uses of “race” within human genetics and genomics as well as in broader biomedical research, clinical practice, and society.”

Genomics has opened new avenues for medical research, diagnosis, and treatment. However, Royal notes that genetics and genomics research also has a complicated history with race and racism; on the one hand, contributing to the creation and maintenance of racial hierarchies, while on the other, providing evidence for dismantling those hierarchies.

Research by Royal and others has demonstrated that using “race” as a surrogate for genetics/biology when studying and treating disease can exacerbate health inequities and impede progress toward achieving optimal health for all. Therein lies a major impetus for the committee’s mandate.

Royal is one of the leading experts in the study of ethical, social, scientific, and clinical issues at the intersection of genetics and race. She serves on numerous national and international advisory boards and committees for government agencies, professional organizations, and corporations addressing these issues and other implications of human genetics and genomics research.

The National Academies provide expert advice on some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and world related to science, engineering, and medicine. The Committee on Use of Race, Ethnicity, and Ancestry as Population Descriptors in Genomics Research first met February 14-15 and is scheduled to meet at least four additional times. Some future meetings will include open sessions where the committee will hear from experts and receive public testimony. The next public session is scheduled for April 4.

The report is expected to be released in early 2023.

Further information on the study, including committee members, future meetings, and the full statement of task can be found on the project website.