Ewan Birney on Race, UK Genomics

Ewan Birney, Co-Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute at EMBL, non-Executive Director for Genomics England

Bio and Contact Info


00:00 Who and what is EMBL?

05:33. What is your role on the race topic?

12:58 Responding to “racial realists”

16:38 Flack for being “woke”

20:31 If race is a social construct, where does that leave the DNA scientist?

27:10 Are you for population-wide BRCA screening?

33:51 Genomics in England not political

36:21 Big Data: Missingness and imputation

41:42 Asking too much of genomics?

Our end-of-year special guest is one of the U.K.’s top genomicists, Ewan Birney, Co-Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute at EMBL. He is also the non-Executive Director for Genomics England.  Ewan's perhaps best known for his work with the ENCODE consortium.

We begin by following up with Ewan on a popular blog he co-wrote in October on race and genetics that responds to some of the latest trends on this topic. What does he think of “racial realism? How does he like being called “woke?” But there were issues not covered in the blog: if indeed race is cultural, what are DNA scientists doing talking about it?

We move on to general questions about genomic medicine in the UK. Ewan gives a nuanced answer on whether or not to do BRCA screening and paints a context for genomics which is different than we see in the U.S.

In a year when major genomic medicine companies have faced the chopping block in America—Human Longevity, Arrivale, UBiome— the field seems to be having a rosier time in England.  One of their health ministers just announced plans to sequence all babies at birth--a plan Ewan admits is aspirational, but "a credible aspiration."  Ewan says England and all the Nordic Viking countries enjoy strong support and interest in genomics. And in the U.K., he says, doing and believing in genomics is rooted deep in a tradition of science that goes beyond politics or any current resident of Downing Street.

Did he mean for his recent piece in the Guardian DNA is not our destiny,  it's just a very useful tool to be a correction to over hype? 

"Yes!  I'm afraid there's a very messy middle here.  It's not the case that genomics is going to somehow solve or radically alter medicine.  That's just not the way it works. But it's also not the case that it's useless.  It is a very useful tool.  It's very similar to radiology.  For certain scenarios, it is really transformative.  It's a core part of medicine.  But it's not the case that all of medicine was completely changed by X-rays."