The government is bankrolling a massive “citizen’s inquiry” that will see its DNA database policies scrutinised by panels of “ordinary” people, including criminals and youngsters, instead of scientists and legal professionals.
The process, due to report in the spring, is being led by the Human Genetics Commission and will be funded to the tune of £75,000. It will see two panels of 30 people each meeting over a six-week period, to “direct their own research into the forensic use of DNA centred on the police national DNA database”.
Each panel will be advised by ten “experts” from different sides of the debate, including scientists, academics and law enforcement and criminal officials, along with people who work with young people and offenders. The panels can then call their own “witnesses” and will hold group sessions of up to 200 people.
By the end of the process the panels will have developed reports, which will not necessarily contain a single opinion or conclusion. The final results will be fed into the Human Genetics Commission’s own report to the government on forensic use of DNA.
The inquiry comes amidst increasing concerns over the UK’s DNA database, which currently stands at four million samples. Worries range from concerns about the wide range of circumstances in which police can oblige citizens to give DNA samples, to the fact that young black men are over-represented in the database.
Bano Murtuja, director of Vis-à-vis, the consultancy which is running the program, said it was not simply a case of eliciting the population’s opinions on the use of DNA. “It’s difficult to get people’s opinions when they’re not informed,” she said.
She explained the aim was to include people with “real life” experience of the government’s DNA policies – including young offenders and those at risk of offending - as well as those who wouldn't even dream of breaking the speed limit and are unlikely to end up on the wrong end of a cheek swab.
She rejected the suggestion that the exercise may be seen as a pop science exercise more worthy of one of Channel 4’s minor productions. "It would be that sort of approach if we were doing it over an evening – but we’re not."
Murtuja said the panels would be talking and thinking about the issues over 11 to 12 weeks. “They’ll get to hear about all sides of the debate,” she said.
The government is putting up half of the cost of the project, with other funding coming from the Human Genetics Commission, the Wellcome Trust and other backers. ®