National Institutes of Health blocking researchers from access to key database for studies of genetics and intelligence

James Lee, writing in City Journal, describes an outrageous limitation on scientific research being imposed by anonymous bureaucrats at the National Institutes of Health, which is receiving $45 billion in taxpayer funding this year.  Apparently, some researchers whose work might lead to results that could "stigmatize" certain groups, or which otherwise would challenge the personal values of the bureaucrats, are being denied access to a key database that taxpayers have paid to assemble.

A policy of deliberate ignorance has corrupted top scientific institutions in the West. It's been an open secret for years that prestigious journals will often reject submissions that offend prevailing political orthodoxies — especially if they involve controversial aspects of human biology and behavior — no matter how scientifically sound the work might be. The leading journal Nature Human Behaviour recently made this practice official in an editorial effectively announcing that it will not publish studies that show the wrong kind of differences between human groups.

American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship: exclusion from access to the data necessary to conduct analyses, let alone publish results. Case in point: the National Institutes of Health now withholds access to an important database if it thinks a scientist's research may wander into forbidden territory. The source at issue, the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP), is an exceptional tool, combining genome scans of several million individuals with extensive data about health, education, occupation, and income. It is indispensable for research on how genes and environments combine to affect human traits. No other widely accessible American database comes close in terms of scientific utility. (snip)

Apparently, NIH is clamping down on a broad range of attempts to explore the relationship between genetics and intelligence.

What is NIH's justification? Studies of intelligence do not pose any greater threat to the dignity of their participants than research based on non-genetic factors. With the customary safeguards in place, research activities such as genetically predicting an individual's academic performance need be no more "stigmatizing" than predicting academic performance based on an individual's family structure during childhood.

The cost of this censorship is profound. On a practical level, many of the original data-generating studies were set up with the explicit goal of understanding risk factors for various diseases. Since intelligence and education are also risk factors for many of these diseases, denying researchers usage of these data stymies progress on the problems the studies were funded to address. Scientific research should not have to justify itself on those grounds, anyway. Perhaps the most elemental principle of science is that the search for truth is worthwhile, regardless of its practical benefits.

NIH's responsibility is to protect the safety and privacy of research participants, not to enforce a party line. Indeed, no apparent legal basis exists for these restrictions. NIH enforces hundreds of regulations, but you will search in vain for any grounds on which to ban "stigmatizing" research — whatever that even means.

The restrictions appear to be invented to impede research on certain topics that anonymous bureaucrats with ideological motivations have decided are out of bounds. It's impossible to know whether senior NIH officials have instigated the restrictions or merely accepted them tacitly. Perhaps they are unaware of the problem; officials far down the bureaucratic ladder are responsible for approving specific applications.

When bureaucrats fear the truth and obstruct the search for it, they are leading us into a new dark age.  I t is utterly patronizing to claim to protect the feelings of groups who might be "stigmatized" by preventing the generation of scientific knowledge that could help them cope with the health and other challenges they face.

Hat tip: Dr. John Dale Dunn.

If you experience technical problems, please write to