UM to cancel talks on genetics, crime U.S. grant frozen after resulting controversy

September 04, 1992|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

University of Maryland officials are expected today to cancel a controversial conference to discuss possible genetic links to crime, after the federal government balked at paying for the event.

Citing advance criticism of the gathering, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda in July froze $78,000 it had agreed to provide for the conference, scheduled next month in College Park.

Titled "Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses, and Implications," the conference was supposed to bring together scholars from several fields, including biology, sociology, criminal justice and legal philoso- phy.

Some academics have questioned the premise that genetic research might be useful in fighting crime. After news of the event spread, blacks criticized the conference as potentially damaging to the black community.

Among the critics was the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose leaders said genetic research was irrelevant to the crime problem and could lead to social engineering.

"We have serious problems with it," said George N. Buntin Jr., head of the Baltimore NAACP. "It sends the wrong message. If you really want to look at the causes of crime, let's look at the social background of the people involved in crime.

"To try to say that crime is genetic," Mr. Buntin added, "and

people are criminals because of their genetics, that's Nazism, like finding an excuse to gas them."

Any racial criticism is unfair, said David T. Wasserman, a legal scholar at the university's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy and the chief organizer of the conference. No one scheduled to speak at the meeting has attempted to link race to crime, he said.

If anything, Mr. Wasserman said, he is inclined to blame crime on social factors rather than a criminal's biological makeup.

Mr. Wasserman said if NIH doesn't release the money by today, the conference will have to be called off.

NIH officials told conference organizers earlier this summer that "further discussions" of the project would be necessary "due to unanticipated sensitivity and validity issues raised following publicity about the conference."

But several weeks later, organizers still don't know what changes they must make to satisfy NIH.

Several academic critics of genetic research wrote or called NIH to complain about the conference after a brochure for the three-day event was circulated in the academic community, according to John W. Diggs, deputy director for extramural research at NIH.

Mr. Wasserman said NIH officials wish the conference and its controversial subject "would just pick up and go away."

"We think their response is entirely political," he said. "It's not out of concern for the black community. They simply view this conference as a political liability."

Evaluators at NIH last year praised the conference's funding proposal.

"They have developed an extremely attractive agenda and have enlisted the support of many of the leading scholars from a host of disciplines in this area," the evaluators wrote.

The issues to be raised at the conference "are clearly important and timely," and the conference "will likely be considered a landmark in the field," the evaluators wrote.

But, the conference's brochure "distorted the nature of the conference as described in the peer-review process," Dr. Diggs at NIH said. The brochure, for example, does not make it clear that genetic links to crime have never been scientifically proven, Dr. Diggs said.

Mr. Wasserman disputed Dr. Diggs' assessment, saying that much of the brochure was taken almost verbatim from the original proposal.

Mr. Wasserman, a lawyer by training, said the conference was never intended to endorse research attempting to link genetic "markers" to crime.

"What everyone agreed on is there is some very controversial research done that will have a social impact and it's important that we study that social impact," Mr. Wasserman said.

The conference would be valuable and unusual in that it would bring together both genetic researchers and some of their many critics, said Dr. Jonathan R. Beckwith, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard University's medical school who planned to speak at the conference.

"It's basically been people shouting at each other from afar, so there's not much interaction or communication," said Dr. Beckwith, a critic of attempts to link genetics to crime. "It can only be to the good."

Dr. Beckwith and others, however, said the conference's title inaccurately implied that scientists have found a genetic basis for criminality. No researcher has made that link, experts say.

Even so, ongoing research may be a valuable tool in understanding crime, the conference's organizers said in their proposal.

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