Real-world problems of the 21st century consistently involve both biological and societal processes. The UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics is unique among American institutions by incorporating scientists fully in the process of understanding ethical, legal, and societal impacts of the applications of their genetic and genomic research. We aim to educate the public to understand, discuss, and make informed decisions about issues in biotechnology, genetics and genomics. We promote all forms of diversity, because genetic research and discussions surrounding technological developments will be enriched by, and will co-evolve with, the cultural diversity of the voices in those discussions.

URGENCY: Real-world problems of the 21st century do not fit neatly into the academic disciplines created in the university centuries ago. Some examples of issues that require an understanding of both biological and societal processes include:

  • the AIDS epidemic;
  • proliferation of mental health testing and diagnoses;
  • anxieties over the use of human and non-human cells and tissues in human therapeutics;
  • psychological impacts of genome-wide testing for ancestry and disease;
  • legalities, insurance, and health consequences of genetic discrimination;
  • private patenting and ownership of genes;
  • health and economics as related to genetically modified foods;
  • genomics and social policy of sexual orientation and gender identity;
  • assisted reproductive technologies;
  • biomedical science and patient advocacy groups.

UNIQUENESS: ISG is unique among American institutions because it incorporates scientists fully in the process of understanding legal, ethical and societal impacts of applications of their research. This strategy differs sharply from the growing number of centers on the ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications program funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health) model that separates genetics from society with their focus of the implications of the former on the latter. ISG bridges the cultural divide between life sciences and human sciences effectively as it uses interdisciplinary teams of scientists to address essential research questions.

MISSION STATEMENT ON DIVERSITY: ISG aims to educate the public to understand, discuss, and make informed decisions about issues in biotechnology, genetics and genomics. Important to the ISG’s research and educational endeavors is the focus on diversifying the community of students and faculty. Diversity encourages a broader scope of research that will inform scholarship with insight from, and relevance to, diverse cultures. Genetic research and discussions surrounding technological developments will be enriched by, and will co-evolve with, the cultural diversity of the voices in those discussions.

FOUNDING VISION: The ISG was the vision of Chancellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale, a nuclear engineer, who became involved in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations. “When I got involved in nuclear arms control, I came to realize that the people who were involved with the Manhattan Project had given virtually no thought to the implications posed by the existence of nuclear weapons.” The Institute is a place where geneticists, biologist, social scientists, lawyers, doctors and citizens can discuss the need for and impacts of particular scientific and technological advances as situated in our present day and near-future societal, legal, and ethical contexts.

LEADERSHIP: The Institute is led by its Director, prominent clinical geneticist Dr. Eric Vilain. Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D., was born in Paris, France, and earned his M.D. from the Paris Children’s Hospital Necker and his Ph.D. from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Medical Genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles.  Dr. Vilain is Professor of Human Genetics, Pediatrics, and Urology in the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Chief of Medical Genetics in the Department of Pediatrics and the Director of the Institute for Gender-Based Biology. He is a Fellow of the American College of Medical Genetics and a member of numerous professional committees, including those related to the care of intersex individuals.

CURRICULUM: ISG launched its new major degree programs, Human Biology and Society, B.A., and Human Biology and Society, B.S., in Fall 2011. Our minor program, Society and Genetics, has been in place since Spring 2008. Both of these initiatives are created and taught by human and natural scientists. In recognition of these educational strengths, ISG has been constituted officially as a campus-wide Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction, with the administrative autonomy of a department, but through its interdisciplinarity is able to promote campus-wide collaborations.

PUBLIC OUTREACH:The Institute is committed to public outreach and education at the interface of society and genetics:

  • Between 2003 and 2012, ISG sponsored an annual public symposium event which each year attracted 250-400 people with topics such as: The Storefront Genome (2003), Nurturing Our Nature (2004), Gender and Genomics (2005), Stem Cells (2006), The Genetic Marketplace (2007), Babies by Design (2008), Near Relative DNA Forensic Testing (2009), DIY/Outlaw Biology (2010),  Dog & Human Co-Evolution (2011), and The Art of Aging (2012).
  • ISG sponsors a public lecture series, Darwin Evolving, to explore contemporary developments in biological and cultural evolution on the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species.
  • ISG has adapted its interdisciplinary team-teaching Science and Society approach to the King Drew Medical Magnet High School, a LAUSD school comprised of ~85% African-American and ~15% Latino/a students. This pipeline strategy is aimed to improve representation from under-represented communities at the undergraduate, graduate student and faculty levels. This project is funded through a UCLA in LA grant.

Read more:
Background and History of the Institute
Vision Statement (2007)
Current Research Projects
Relevant Publications