BALTIMORE (AP) - Amid criticism from some scholars and black leaders, researchers will hold a long-delayed conference this weekend on whether people can be genetically inclined toward crime.
The conference, which was originally scheduled for 1992 but postponed after an uproar, will also examine possible screening for genetic markers to indicate criminal tendencies.
The three-day conference, organized by the University of Maryland, starts today at the private Aspen Institute in Queenstown, Md. It will be attended by researchers in such fields as sociology, neuroscience, psychology and genetics, along with legal scholars and historians.
Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and a black civil rights activist, said blacks should be leery.
"There's a history going way back to slavery of white Americans and Europeans saying that blacks are in some way inferior genetically," he said. "There's such a strong chance of misuse that we have to be extremely cautious."
Some academics question whether the research would divert funding from education, unemployment and other causes of crime. One researcher is criticizing a study that proposes inmates be tested for levels of a brain chemical that supposedly predicts violent behavior.
Conference organizer David Wasserman, a legal scholar at the University of Maryland, said the research deals with the relationship between crime and genetics in individuals, not groups.
In 1992, the National Institutes of Health in 1992 froze the $78,000 in funding it had promised for the conference, prompting cries of academic censorship from University of Maryland officials.
The NIH said a brochure publicizing the conference gave the impression that the agency endorses a connection between genetics and crime.
Funding was restored last year after an NIH appeals board found the agency didn't have the power to freeze already-approved funds.
A spokesman for the NIH referred questions to the university.
About 35 participants at the conference will present papers and discuss whether tendencies toward violent or otherwise criminal behavior can be inherited and, if so, how this can be measured. Testing for genetic markers and other social and ethical issues of the research will also be discussed.
Dr. Evan S. Balaban, a geneticist and neurobiologist at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego who will attend the conference, cautioned against applying the research to public policy.
"I think the problem is a lot of people on the fringes of science, in government and law, have this almost religious belief that things science produces are true and you must act on them," he said.
Balaban likened the desire to use genetics to predict criminality to the confidence placed in DNA testing in criminal trials.
Dorothy Nelkin, a New York University professor of sociology, questioned the motives of many researchers looking to link genetics and crime.
"People doing the work are not geneticists, they are behavioral psychologists," she said. "I think it's research with a social agenda. I think the social agenda fits very well into the dismantling of the welfare state.
"I think it's going to be appropriated to reinforce gender and race distinctions. This research is so appropriable for pernicious ends, and that's a matter of concern," said Nelkin, who will attend the conference.
Not all of the research is controversial.
C. Ray Jeffery, a criminologist at Florida State University, will present a paper on possible medical approaches to preventing crime. Many inmates and juvenile delinquents suffer from neurological conditions, which if treated could prevent further crimes, Jeffery said.
Balaban said he will discuss several already-published papers proposing that inmates be tested for levels of a brain chemical known as serotonin. Some believe it can predict whether someone will commit criminal acts.
Balaban said he and a colleague found flaws in the papers' methodology.