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Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:00 AM

By Daphne O. Martschenko, PhD,  Lucas J. Matthews, PhD, Maya Sabatello, LLB, PhD

Only a couple of decades ago, extensive genetic testing seemed like science fiction – a distant future that might only be possible with complex and inconvenient medical procedures at a doctor’s office. But much has changed. From the comfort of one’s own home, direct to consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies now offer accessible and more affordable options for genetic testing. Consumers today can access reports on genetic ancestry from well-known companies like 23andMe or Ancestry.com. Lesser known are the growing number of third-party DTC companies offering genetic tests that range from the traditional focus on medical conditions like depression, to social outcomes such as math, reading abilities, or intelligence. Some DTC companies are even expanding genetic testing to romance by providing dating services that use DNA to select compatible couples. One day soon there may be genetic tests for learning disabilities like dyslexia that parents, schools, and other educational stakeholders may want to use when advocating for a child’s individualized educational plans (IEP).

These current and future developments are made possible by social and behavioral genomics research. This research moves away from the traditional focus on single-genes that are associated with diseases-related trait like the BRCA gene and instead examines complex human behaviors and social outcomes such as household income, years of schooling, or criminal behavior through genetic lens. Researchers in this area conduct Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) to identify and add up the tiny effects of the many genes that are associated with a socially relevant behavior or outcome. By adding up the tiny effects of the many genes identified through a GWAS, so-called “polygenic scores” (PGS) allows researchers to estimate an individual’s probability of a disease, behavior, or social outcome. 

As social and behavioral genomics research gathers more media attention and funding, it reinvigorates longstanding debates about the risks and potential benefits of genetic data on human behavior. In the past, research into the genetics of intelligence was largely driven by racist ideology and biases against people with disabilities (“ableism”) and the poor (“classism”). Despite this troubling history and the field’s real-world harms, many scholars today dismiss social and behavioral genomics research as frivolous and outside mainstream science. It’s past time to acknowledge that social and behavioral genomic research is not merely a contemporary hype – it is research that is here to stay. 

Social and behavioral genomics in education

As social and behavioral genomics grows in prominence, there is a need to consider the many concerns the field raises for anyone who is interested in equity, inclusion and justice, especially in education. Research in this area is likely to impact education, especially childhood education, for all in the years to come. Some researchers see promise in this future. Others see peril.  

In recent years, strong and persistent calls to integrate polygenic scores into educational settings have emerged. Researchers in social and behavioral genomics argue that studying genetics may improve our understandings of students’ educational trajectories or the effectiveness of different educational interventions. They also discuss how polygenic scores for learning disabilities could help students receive diagnoses and subsequent support sooner than they do now. Taking it a step further, some believe that genetic data could be used to personalize education by allowing for more individualized learning plans that maximize students’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses. 

Despite the hype, there are risks and limitations to social and behavioral genomics that need to be highlighted. Enduring racial, disability, and socioeconomic inequalities affect educational access and outcomes in America – some fear that genetics will exacerbate these disparities. For example, there may be inequalities in access to high-cost initiatives like “precision education” that could further favor children who are already more privileged in their educational setting. This could include not only access to testing, but also access to trained educators and child development experts who understand what precision education is and can tailor the educational setting to the child’s needs.  Additionally, most polygenic scores are created using DNA samples from individuals of European ancestries. This means that PGS and any potential benefits they illuminate may not be as accurate in other populations. Additionally, some research suggests that the use of PGS in educational settings holds the potential for stigma and harmful, self-fulfilling prophecies. These potentially harmful applications of genetic testing in schools are particularly concerning given that current policy regulations in the United States do not protect against genetic discrimination in schools. Without these protections, polygenic scores could be used to deny people access to resources or to discriminate against them. Each of these risks, and others, threaten already fragile efforts aimed at educational equity. 

Conclusion

Social and behavioral genomics pose significant risks to equity, inclusion and justice in education. To counter these risks a proactive approach is needed. We need to care about social and behavioral genomics and its potential impacts. The bioethics community needs to work alongside educators, policy makers, administrators, and others with practical experience in educational settings. Grant bodies need to fund implementational studies and more research on the risks and potential benefits of social and behavioral genomics to assure that the integration of genetics into education does not exacerbate existing disparities in access or outcomes. Otherwise, policy efforts aimed at regulation and oversight will languish in development. And the goals of educational equity will be that much harder to achieve. 

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