Researchers Link Genes to Income. Other Scientists Beg to Differ.


In a study published Monday in the journal Nature Communications, a team of researchers in the U.K. crunched genetic data from more than 286,000 Britons in order to address an ancient and loaded question: Why are some people wealthy and some people poor? Their paper, their methods, and their answer — that genetic variation may contribute, in consistent and measurable ways, to variation in income — set off an immediate backlash from many of their fellow researchers.

The research team, led by statistical geneticist W. David Hill, used something called a genome-wide association study, or GWAS — a technique that involves scanning a huge amount of genetic data and looking for correlations between specific genetic markers and specific real-world outcomes. Typically, the technique is used to find genetic signals that are correlated with the appearance of certain diseases. But Hill and other geneticists have, in recent years, applied GWAS to other kinds of outcomes, such as having a high IQ, or, in this case, making a certain amount of money.

Hill and his colleagues identified 149 points on the genome that were linked with household income in this U.K. sample. Many of those points, they found, were also linked to intelligence. “These results indicate that, in modern era Great Britain, genetic effects contribute towards some of the observed socioeconomic inequalities,” the team wrote.

On Twitter, many scientists were quick to highlight that the dataset Hill and his colleagues used was actually correlating individual genetics with household income, not individual earnings, and that things like income are profoundly shaped by a host of other, more direct factors, including geography, racial discrimination, gender biases, and that other decidedly non-genetic type of inheritance: parental wealth.

In a widely circulated thread, biologist Ewan Birney praised the researchers’ basic GWAS methods but criticized their interpretation of the data. The team’s analysis, he wrote, mostly finds that “the vast majority of variation of income in a population is not due to genetics.” And, he added, the new paper suggests that, at best, genetics has a very modest effect on income. “Again,” Birney said, “I think geneticists do a disservice by not stressing this.”

But other researchers were more blunt in their critique of the research by Hill and his colleagues. “Let’s do social Darwinism,” wrote Arizona State University biologist Katie Hinde in one ironic tweet, “but with GWAS!”

Also in the news:

• Eight Democratic Congress members, including U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Cory Booker, have ramped up pressure on Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson to address the use of facial recognition technology in federally assisted housing. In a letter sent this week, the lawmakers gave Carson until January 24 to provide detailed information on how many public housing properties have used the technology, what policies HUD has implemented to protect the privacy of residents, and how the technology is impacting communities. The request comes on the heels of a New York Times story reporting that facial recognition was being deployed as a law-enforcement tool in Detroit public housing. Landlords in New York City have also sought to install the technology as a security measure in low-income and rent-controlled housing. Lawmakers and academics alike have expressed concern not only about the technology’s intrusiveness but about its accuracy: Facial recognition algorithms frequently misidentify African Americans and other people of color. “Potential sharing of this data, particularly with law enforcement, further heightens concerns about the risk this technology poses to vulnerable communities,” the members of Congress wrote in their letter to Carson. (BuzzFeed News)

• Researchers in Canada are conducting what is believed to be the first North American trial of deep-brain stimulation as a treatment for alcohol-use disorder. The treatment involves drilling small holes in the skull and placing electrodes to deliver pulses of electricity to key areas of the brain. In the Canada trial, Frank Plummer, a microbiologist and infectious disease expert who has struggled with reliance on alcohol for years, had electrodes placed in his nucleus accumbens, which is involved in the brain’s reward system. The electrodes are powered by a battery pack implanted under the collarbone. “The idea is that if we can stimulate this part of the brain, disrupt the activity in the [brain’s reward] circuit and essentially reset it, we may have a good chance of having an influence and impact on some of these behaviors,” neurosurgeon Nir Lipsman, the trial’s lead investigator, told The Globe and Mail. In the past, DBS has been used to treat chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, and depression, among other issues. And in November, a team in West Virginia performed surgery on the first U.S. patient to test DBS for opioid-use disorder. (The Globe and Mail)

• California’s coastal waters are acidifying two times faster than average for the world’s oceans, according to a study published Monday in Nature Geosciences. The researchers documented a perfect storm of acidification off California’s shores: Oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide due to climate change effects, as the state’s already strong currents cause upwelling that stirs more acidic waters from the ocean’s depths to its surface. After analyzing 2,000 shells from the last century, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Emily Osborne and her colleagues documented a 20 percent reduction in calcification in the shells — a trend that indicates a spike in ocean acidity. Among other things, this translates into thinner and more brittle shells, and increased vulnerability to the critters who build and use those shells as armor. It also means that California’s fisheries — a bounty of spiny lobster, market squid, Dungeness crab, and other species that account for 10 percent of U.S. seafood production — are at increased risk from the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification. (The New York Times)

• An attention-grabbing study that linked the killing of unarmed black citizens by police to black infant health problems in surrounding neighborhoods was retracted this week due to the discovery of data and statistical errors. The study, Police Violence and the Health of Black Infants, was published in Science Advances on December 4 and received coverage in publications ranging from Scientific American to Wired. But, after a reader noticed noticed that the paper had used a database that erroneously identified some shooting victims as unarmed, lead author Joscha Legewie of Harvard University responded by cleaning up the data and expanding the number of cases in his analysis. The new study failed to find the same strong association between police violence in a given neighborhood and stress in pregnant women living there. Legewie then retracted the paper, drawing praise for his quick, transparent response to the problem. Still, researchers warned against using one incorrect paper to discredit a body of work consistently showing health consequences of police violence in affected communities. (Los Angeles Times)

• The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) announced a plan this week, backed by 90 percent of ship owners, that would place a $2 tax on every metric ton of ship fuel in order to fund research into more environmentally friendly vessels. The ICS, which anticipates the new levy will bring in $5 billion within a decade, is proposing that the funds be used to create a research and development program aimed at accelerating efforts “to decarbonize the shipping sector” and administered by a new nongovernmental organization, the International Maritime Research and Development Board. The efforts would be overseen by the member countries of the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization. ICS’s proposal is expected to be discussed in March at the next meeting of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee. Shipping currently contributes roughly 2 to 3 percent of global carbon emissions, and the IMO has set a goal to cut emissions from international shipping in half by 2050, compared to 2008 levels. Some environmentalists, however, have voiced concerns that the initiative is too little, too late. (BBC, The Associated Press)

• Glaciologists at the University of California, Irvine, have recently discovered the deepest point on land under the Denman Glacier in eastern Antarctica. The trough beneath the glacier is about 3.5 kilometers, or a little over 2 miles, below sea level — much deeper than the lowest exposed land on Earth, on the shores of the Dead Sea, which are only around 413 meters, or about 1,300 feet below sea level. The research team, led by Mathieu Morlighem, had been using a new technology called BedMachine to map the area under the glacier when they discovered the trough went much deeper than they anticipated. A combination of radar measurements, high-precision surface motion data from satellites, and snow accumulation from regional climate models was used to get a precise measurement of the shape of the trough. (CNN)

• To the dismay of many researchers and environmental activists across North America, the National Library of Medicine made good this week on a promise, made earlier this year, that its online pollution mapping tool, known as Toxmap, would be retired. Launched 15 years ago, the interactive application allowed users to pan and zoom across a map identifying thousands of sites in the U.S. and Canada that had been sullied by industrial pollutants. It drew data from numerous other agencies, provided details on each polluted location, and allowed users to cross-reference that information with other relevant data, like demographics and population. But as of Tuesday, the application was no longer online. The NLM provided only vague explanations for the closure of Toxmap, citing “organizational changes” and pointing to the availability of the same information from disparate sources elsewhere. But several researchers told Undark this week that the tool was unique in bringing together all of this information into one application, and that the shuttering of Toxmap would inhibit public access to vital information on environmental hazards. Asked what an ideal-world toxic data platform would look like, one environmental policy researcher simply said: “I would build something like Toxmap.” (Undark)

• And finally: Male scientists are more likely than their female counterparts to describe their research as excellent, at least when it comes to writing up their findings for publication, a study published Monday in The BMJ found. After analyzing the titles and abstracts of more than 101,700 clinical research articles and approximately 6.2 million life science articles published between 2002 and 2017, researchers found male-authored studies were 12 percent more likely to contain one of 25 positive keywords like “unique,” “remarkable,” or “robust.” While the findings are unlikely to surprise anyone who has conversed with scientists at a cocktail hour, they do provide evidence of one of the subtler ways in which cultural norms may hurt the careers of women in science. The BMJ study also pointed out that papers in prestigious medical journals had 13 percent more downstream citations — a key metric linked to career success — if they presented their findings in a rosy light. So, should female researchers behave more like men when it comes to describing their work? Not so fast, wrote researchers unaffiliated with the study in an accompanying opinion piece. Instead of “fixing the women,” they argued, “[w]e must fix the systems that support gender disparities.” (The Washington Post)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff and interns.


Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Wired, Salon, Slate, Pacific Standard, the Daily Beast, and The Washington Post, among other publications.