A controversial study has claimed that genes associated with higher educational achievement are more prevalent in wealthier areas of the UK, apparently resulting in a ‘gene drain’ in more deprived areas of the UK.

The study suggests that genetic-based social stratification is taking place, as it concludes that people with genetic traits linked to educational achievement were migrating away from poorer areas to areas of the UK with greater opportunities.

The study authors analysed the genetic data of 450,000 participants from the UK Biobank. They looked for genetic variants that were shared between more educated people, defined by finishing school or having a university degree or a PhD. They were then able to identify where people that displayed genetic traits associated educational achievement were clustered in the UK.

The majority of clustering is due to people living near to where they are from, or their family live. Even when accounting for this, gene variants associated with educational achievement were more concentrated in wealthier parts of the UK.

The authors therefore concluded that people with a greater tendency to become more educated, based on their genetic variants, were abandoning the more deprived areas of the UK. Socially this may make sense; that educated people migrate to places with greater opportunities.

However, it is important to account for factors, other than genetics, that influence educational achievement. Most estimates put the differences between people to be 50% due to genetics and 50% due to environment. Wealthier areas generally have better funded schools that are more effective at supporting students to achieve academically. Parents and guardians are also a strong influence, as the children of well-educated parents perform usually better academically.

Therefore, although the results may be correct, the author’s conclusion appears to be under significant doubt.

The study has been heavily criticised by scientists online, who have raised questions about whether or not the study should have been done at all. Large-scale genetic studies can fall into the trap of citing purely genetic causes for an extremely complex trait with multiple contributing factors, of which genetics is just one. Studies such as this one have proven to be incredibly divisive and inflammatory; the results could be interpreted as demonstrating that there are few educated people in deprived areas, and that people’s educational capabilities are overwhelmingly limited by their genetics.

The results also have the potential to be used to justify damaging viewpoints. The study data could be used to substantiate that a genetic basis results in a lack of opportunities and prevalence of poverty in deprived areas, rather than the much more likely option that many areas in the UK are not given enough governmental support or investment.

The study should therefore serve to highlight the prevalence of educational equality around the UK, rather than insinuate that there is a ‘gene drain’ taking place in deprived areas of the UK.

Another controversial large scale genetic study looked into gene variants associated with same-sex attraction. Read our opinion piece about it here

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