The impact of scientific investigations of race and racism on the way we think about human bodies, diversity, and commonality has profound consequences for society. The use of race in scientific and medical research has been notoriously prone to bias and error. Such flaws persist when race is used as a poor proxy for genetic variation, treated as a cause of social inequities, or otherwise carelessly inserted as a research variable without adequate definition or scientific rationale. Consequently, these scientific studies of race and racism, and the products they generate, transfer new knowledge about human biology, commonality, and difference from the laboratory to the marketplace for public consumption. Such studies and biotechnologies, and the discourses interpreting them, translate scientific authority and significance into popular conceptions of race, and help to reconstitute and extend the role of race in society. Nevertheless, there persists a great deal of uncertainty and variability within the scientific community, policy makers, and the broader public about the relationship between race and biology.
Biomedical researchers continue to grapple with the challenging task of assigning the appropriate significance to race as a variable in research using novel technoscientific tools for studying populations, behaviors and health inequities. Such complex interpretations of the interactions among identity, difference and biology play a crucial role in constructing racial difference, and have the potential to both maintain and contest racial inequities. As a result, scientists’ use of race has tremendous potential to affect the direction of state efforts to address health disparities, and racial inequality more broadly, by directing attention toward or away from structural causes. Thus, illuminating and investigating the social implications of the ways race is used in scientific inquiry and the ways in which racialized meanings and consequences are made through and impacted by biotechnological innovation is especially urgent today.
The Penn Program on Race, Science and Society (PRSS) seeks to foster transformative approaches to the role of race in science and society through collaborative engagement with scientists, scholars, and students from social science, biological, medical, public health, and humanistic perspectives. Each year PRSS hosts a series of colloquia, workshops, lectures, and working group meetings focused on a cutting-edge theme related to race, science and society. In addition, PRSS co-sponsors events with other Penn institutions and departments that also have a commitment to social justice and examining the impacts of race in science, medicine and society. PRSS is positioned to: help both elucidate and address questions, concerns, and challenges raised by scientific research on race; comprehend scientific, social and racialized implications of contemporary biomedical research and health care practices; and propose innovative solutions for moving forward in a scientifically valid and socially equitable way. Thus, PRSS aims to both promote social justice and to dispel the myth that race is a natural division of human beings.