BALTIMORE — A conference exploring possible links between genetics and crime was postponed Friday because federal money was withheld amid criticism from black leaders.
The decision by the National Institutes of Health to freeze $78,000 earmarked for the meeting at the University of Maryland in College Park amounts to an assault on academic freedom, a university official said.
The institutes decided in July to withdraw funds for the conference, scheduled for Oct. 9-11. University officials had been working to persuade the agency to free the money, but they decided Friday to postpone the conference indefinitely.
"The crux of the conference was to look at research now being done that either attempts to link genetics to crime or is being construed as having that effect," said organizer David Wasserman, a legal scholar at the university's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy. "The last thing in the world the conference wants to do is promote that crime and genetics are linked."
NIH officials were concerned mostly with a description of the conference in a brochure that said the gathering was co-sponsored by the agency, said John Diggs, the agency's deputy director for extramural research.
"Because some of this research is going on, it is appropriate to debate the implications, but we have to make clear that we are not saying NIH validates the notion that there is a link between genetics and crime," he said.
Academics have questioned the validity of such research. And black leaders have said it could lead to social engineering.
"We know from the calls we have received that there was quite a bit of concern about the direction of the conference, and I think that concern was justified," said Jim Williams, director of public relations for the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.
Research that was to have been discussed included the inheritability of behavioral characteristics, the neural biology of behavior, and genetic markers for various behaviors, Wasserman said.