WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Funny how the sword of political correctness swings many ways. A new twist in the old argument of ''nature vs. nurture'' in determining criminal behavior has put new heat on the National Institutes of Health in an age of political and moral litmus tests for government funds.
The NIH's hasty withdrawal of funds from an academic conference, titled ''Genetic Factors in Crime: Findings, Uses and Implications,'' which was to be held at the University of Maryland beginning October 9, has brought howls of outrage over ''censorship,'' ''political correctness'' and ''academic freedom.''
The subject turned into a powder keg when criticisms of it appeared in an interview on cable TV's Black Entertainment Television with Dr. Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist who charged the conference ''will promote biological and psychiatric intrusions upon presumably dangerous people.''
That sounds like eugenics to the Congressional Black Caucus, the Association of Black Psychologists and the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, all of which protested the event. Eugenics, a decades-old movement to improve the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating, has long been linked with notions of white racial superiority. Third Reich, anyone?
Put that together with ''crime,'' which has become in more recent times a socially acceptable excuse to discriminate against black people, especially young black males, and it is not hard to understand why a proposed scientific search for a criminal gene would raise a red ''danger'' flag to black leaders.
But when NIH canceled its funding, John W. Diggs, a deputy director, fiercely denied in a letter to the university that politics had anything to do with it. Rather, he said, ''legitimate concerns of society'' were aroused by the contents of the conference brochure, which appeared to accept too readily the highly debatable notion that criminal behavior might have a genetic basis.
The questionable part of the brochure said: ''Genetic research holds out the prospect for identifying individuals who may be predisposed to certain kinds of criminal conduct, of isolating environmental features which trigger those predispositions and of treating some predispositions with drugs and unintrusive therapies.''
Oh? That's a ''radical divergence from the topics for which the grant was awarded,'' Mr. Diggs said.
David Wasserman, the conference's organizer at the university's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, said, however, that virtually the same language was included in the funding proposal he sent to NIH in 1991. He also expressed regret that he had not used clearer language to point out that scholars would argue both sides of the notion of genetic links to crime.
I don't doubt his sincerity. The University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy has turned out some of the best scholarly explorations of race relations that I have seen.
And, although I find the subject distasteful, it doesn't necessarily have to be racist.
In fact, an unbiased search for a criminal gene could lead just as easily to Europe as it would to Africa, as evidenced by the controversial work of Toronto's Michael Bradley, author of ''The Iceman Inheritance,'' in which he argues that unique glacial adaptations made Western humanity ''more aggressive than other major genetic groups.''
Why not? Europe's empires weren't conquered by wimps. Nevertheless, the NIH can easily find more useful places to put its scarce research dollars than into yet another rathole search for genetic links to criminal behavior when environmental factors so obviously are more significant.
Censorship isn't the problem. It's common sense. The University of Maryland is perfectly free to hold its conference with some other funding source. As Republican Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah and Bob Dole of Kansas said, when they argued against National Endowment for the Arts funding for artists they didn't like, scientists can do whatever they want ''with their own time and their own dime.''
But when you ask for government money, you shouldn't be surprised if that government wants to have a say in how you spend it. Government agencies are not censoring when they pick and choose which projects they want to fund, any more than editors are censoring when they decide which news is fit to print. We call it ''editing.'' The government calls it ''priorities.''
Nevertheless, I find it rather sinister that so many scientists insist on exploring the far-fetched possibility of genetic links to crime when environmental influences, like poverty and weak family supports, are so much more obvious.
If a theoretical criminal gene were the culprit, would we not have seen more consistently criminal behavior by a particular blood strain over the years? Instead, we have seen just about every one of America's many ethnic groups take its turn as the ''criminal class'' of the moment.
In fact, the latest FBI figures on violent crimes by juveniles shows they have soared to ''an unprecedented level'' throughout the nation in a rising wave of murders, rapes and assaults that involves not only ''disadvantaged minority youth in urban areas but is evident in all races, social classes and lifestyles,'' in all parts of the country, according to FBI Director William Sessions.
Is something triggering a criminal gene? Anything is possible. But while the existence of such a gene is dubious, the triggers are quite obvious. It doesn't take a government-funded scientist to figure that out.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.