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Premier scientific journal Nature takes on ‘climate of fear’ surrounding research on sex and gender

Nature, one of the world’s premier scientific journals, has acknowledged the importance of studying sex and gender differences and officially denounced the “climate of fear and reticence” that is stymying research on the topic.

To that end, the journal in May launched “a collection of opinion articles” on the topic to be published over the coming months to foster honest and courageous discussions on a topic that many scientists shy away from due to fears of professional and personal repercussions.

“Some scientists have been warned off studying sex differences by colleagues. Others, who are already working on sex or gender-related topics, are hesitant to publish their views,” read the editorial introducing the series.

“…In time, we hope this collection will help to shape research, and provide a reference point for moderating often-intemperate debates.”

Headlines that kicked off the series include “Neglecting sex and gender in research is a public-health risk,” “Male–female comparisons are powerful in biomedical research” and “Heed lessons from past studies involving transgender people: first, do no harm.”

What the collection of articles represents and whether it will ease tensions surrounding this area of research remains to be seen.

Jeffrey Mogil, a neuroscientist and pain researcher at Mcgill University, as well as the co-author of one of the articles in Nature’s sex and gender series, told The College Fix there is an effort underway in biological research to do away with or minimize the importance of the concept of sex and sex as a binary variable.

This is problematic, Mogil said in a recent telephone interview, because sex in mammals is “either binary or it rounds to binary and in doing so it always has been useful and continues to be and any conception of it that isn’t binary would then impose practical difficulties on how science is done.”

Moreover, he noted, discarding the notion of binary sex in mammals would set back important advancements in how many biomedical researchers now do their work.

“There are sex differences in all kinds of traits that we’re interested in and where we didn’t know they existed,” Mogil said. “The reason we didn’t know they existed [is] because until extremely recently, essentially all biology pre-clinical experiments were done with males only.”

“Since regulatory agencies, funding agencies, have demanded that people start using both sexes [in research],” he said, “lo and behold, we’re finding sex differences.”

“We’re finding that what we thought was the biology of a thing was only the biology of the thing in males and the female biology is completely different,” he added.

“This is in our minds,” he said, “an incredible scientific advance and that advance is at risk of stopping and reverting if, you know, people start to believe…dividing animals into males and females is inappropriate.”

Although Mogil stated he did not know how Nature made editorial decisions regarding the selection of articles for their sex and gender collection, he said that he felt the article he and his co-authors wrote was intended to defend the status quo against those “advocating…either that gender is much more important than sex or that sex is more complicated than people have made it seem.”

The College Fix reached out to a senior communications manager from Springer Nature in early June regarding the selection process for the series, as well as how sex was presented in some of the other commentaries, but did not receive a response.

Daniel Barbash, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Cornell University, was more skeptical than Mogil of Nature’s sex and gender op-ed collection when he spoke to The College Fix in a late-May phone interview.

Although he said he generally held a positive view of the article Mogil co-authored and appreciated that it explicitly stated “there are only two sex categories in mammals,” he noted that he also felt the authors of other commentaries in the series were to some extent “further conflating sex and gender.”

“There’s little things that sometimes give the game away,” he said. “These articles are using phrases like ‘a person’s sex assigned at birth’. I find that phrase amusing. I don’t think sex is assigned at birth. Biological sex is a fact. It’s not assigned. It’s observed.”

“[For] the vast majority of humans, from the moment they’re born,” he said, “there is zero ambiguity whether they’re a male or a female.”

Furthermore, the “overall tone” of the collection, Barbash said, was that “there needs to be more research on gender variation and that there is more complexity to biological sex than a binary.”

According to Barbash, neither of these notions are “universally accepted” among biologists.

He said he believes the series has “the potential to drive funding agencies and other agencies that are involved in the intersection between politics and research in a particular direction that I don’t think would always be helpful.”

“I don’t think any serious biologist would deny that sex is a hugely important factor in both basic research and in biomedical research,” said Barbash. “Of course, any study on the effect of drugs should be tested separately in males and females, otherwise it’s a hugely confounding factor if you ignore that.”

Yet, he said, “the notion that we need to do the same thing for gender…is really not supported,” and may not be very feasible.

“Half the population is male and half the population is female,” Barbash said. “We see all kinds of estimates for gender nonconforming and transgender individuals but, no doubt, they’re much less frequent than males and females.”

On account of this, he said, even if research questions regarding gender divergence and transgender individuals are worthwhile, “it would be problematic, for example, to necessitate that all NIH studies of humans include males, females and gender nonconforming individuals or transgender individuals.”

However, he said, he feared “this series of articles could have that kind of impact in influencing policy.”

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Daniel Nuccio holds master's degrees in both psychology and biology. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in biology at Northern Illinois University where he is studying the impact of social isolation on host-microbe interactions and learning new coding techniques to integrate into his research.