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Silhouette of a human with the Scales of Justice where the brain would be

For decades genetics and genomics researchers have used race, ethnicity, ancestry and other population descriptors in research that has opened powerful areas of study of human history and evolution, biology, diseases and heritable traits.

But these descriptors are slippery words with hard to pin down meanings. They are also contested words, and the use of “race” as a surrogate for biology or genetics has in particular led to confusion, discrimination and increased race-based health inequities.

In March, a national committee co-chaired by Duke Professor Charmaine Royal issued a report that emphasized the high stakes of ensuring that genetics research benefits all groups in society and mitigates harm. (Watch the release of the report on Vimeo.)

Released after a year of public hearings and study, the committee’s report recommended that researchers tailor their use of populations descriptors to the type of study and the research questions they are pursuing. The committee also generally recommended avoiding the use of “race” in genetics research, and using other population descriptors only when they state clearly and precisely what purpose they serve in the...