Penn symposium tackles race, science, and society

Is race a biological category? How does race figure into scientific research, clinical practice, and the development and use of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals? And what can we learn from historical investigations into race that will inform today’s scientific and medical inquiries?

These are among the complex questions that will be addressed by panels of experts during the April 11 symposium, “The Future of Race: Regression or Revolution?”

The event is being co-hosted by Penn’s new Program on Race, Science and Society (PRSS), which is based in the Center for Africana Studies, and the Penn Museum. The Center for Africana Studies is also co-sponsoring the symposium. The event will be held in the Museum’s Widener Lecture Hall from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The symposium is free and open to the public, though registration is required.

Garry Bertholf, the inaugural postdoctoral fellow of PRSS, worked with the program’s director, Dorothy Roberts, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with appointments in Penn Arts & Sciences and Penn Law School, to organize the symposium. Experts from institutions around the country will participate, including Roberts and Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and professor of sociology and Africana studies.

“[PRSS] is devoted to new, interdisciplinary approaches to studying the role of race in scientific research,” says Bertholf. “We see this event as the culmination of the launch of the program, to bring some of the ideas we’ve been thinking about to a broader audience.”

After introductions, the first panel will discuss how race science has evolved since the 19th century, and how those early inquiries are manifested in research today. A second panel will focus on how teaching about the biological basis of race has changed over time. Race in research and biotechnology will frame the discussion for the third panel.

“There are interesting ways in which scholarly research is intersecting with the real world,” says Bertholf, noting the Food and Drug Administration recently shut down genome-testing company 23andMe over concerns it was misleading customers about the medical value of the information its tests provided.

The final plenary panel, moderated by Roberts, will give an opportunity for all panelists to delve more deeply into issues raised throughout the day.

Bertholf says the symposium should not only be of interest to scholars and academics, but also to those interested in the practical implications of scientific research focused on race.

“We see our program as tied to the community as well,” he says. “A lot of what we look at has to do with issues of health inequality and how actions can have unintended consequences.”

To register for the symposium, visit the Center for Africana Studies website.

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