By Celia B. Fisher, Ph.D.
A 20-year, multi-million dollar study of more than 10,000 New Yorkers scheduled to begin next year claims that it will enable the development of theories, therapeutics, and policies to improve the health and quality of human life. Although still in the planning stages, the breadth of the data collection proposed (including health habits, biological data, and geospatial mapping) combined with the lack of detail accompanying such a widespread publicity effort raises questions regarding the extent to which the research risks of such an endeavor has been well thought out.
Along with the contributions that such a large-scale study can make to understanding of the intersecting roles of biological and social factors influencing physical and mental health across the lifespan, comes the potential to widen existing health disparities. The National Institutes of Health’s current emphasis on funding for genetic and neurological factors as major explanatory frameworks runs the risk of reinforcing negative social stereotypes about individual and family characteristics that may inadvertently serve to maintain entrenched health inequities based on class and race/ethnicity long after the study is completed.
To be sure, the economic, racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity of New York City offers an opportunity for health research that can improve health outcomes for all New Yorkers. However, there is growing consensus that broadly worded racial/ethnic classifications to describe research populations, even if based on participant’s self-identifications, is an inaccurate and insufficient measure of genetic variation and an inadequate stand-in for unmeasured social, cultural, and economic contextual factors that play a powerful role in health disparities.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.