Genetics, technology, security and justice: the social life of DNA

matthias-wienroth-150Dr Matthias Wienroth is researcher and knowledge broker at the interface of the sociology of science and technology, public and policy engagement, ethics, and governance studies. He is part of the FP7 European Forensic Genetics (EUROFORGEN) Network of Excellence and Research Fellow at Northumbria University; he is also Visiting Researcher at the Policy, Ethics and Life Sciences (PEALS) Research Centre, Newcastle University.

Here, in the latest of our biosocial blog series, he discusses the role of DNA and the research discussed in the ESRC-funded seminar series ‘Genetics, technology, security and justice: Crossing, contesting and comparing boundaries’

DNA evidence is often portrayed as vital to criminal investigations and trials. Just over 30 years ago, in 1984, Alec Jeffreys and his team at Leicester University discovered DNA profiling. In its first application it helped to exonerate one suspect and then build the case for the conviction of another. Today, DNA analysis is often perceived to be the ‘gold standard’ for evidence.

But this wasn’t always so. It took the ‘DNA Wars’ – a dispute ‘fought’ in court rooms, scientific journals, forensic laboratories, and by policymakers in the USA – to enshrine DNA analysis as the currently most reliable forensic method.

Ultimately, this dispute led to the standardisation of the collection, storage, and analysis of biological material, thus making DNA evidence more reliable. Although there have since been cases where contamination of material has led to investigative problems and judicial errors, these are becoming less common as standards are further developed and implemented. Thus, the Innocence Project has long used DNA analysis successfully to exonerate those considered wrongfully convicted.

Forensic genetic technologies have taken considerable leaps forward, and can now deliver a lot more with a lot less: more information is available, analyses can be done more quickly and accurately, and they require smaller amounts of DNA.

But any biotechnology is also a social technology. The introduction of DNA analysis into the criminal justice system has been enabled by, as well as altered, the way the state and its citizens relate to one another. For example:

  • legislation around the use of DNA has been introduced, enabling deployment of new forensic genetic technologies,
  • new infrastructures such as the UK National DNA database have been set up, expanding the use of DNA profiling as well as changing criminal justice practices (eg mandatory mouth swabs for arrestees suspected of serious crimes),
  • novel social identities – such as genetic suspect or genetic witness – have emerged.

Whilst DNA is the stuff that makes biological life, the way we perceive and use DNA also creates and changes social life.

So, whenever a new technology is imagined or developed, we need to consider how it may be used in everyday practice. Is adequate legislation in place? What should good governance look like? How may technology uses impact on our way of life, and which impacts do we want? Which cultural and social values and norms (such as human rights, self-identities, cultural attitudes, and prejudices) will it reinforce or challenge?

These key questions face any new technology, but especially one that promises to affect two of our most important social goods: security and justice.

Exploring forensic genetic technologies

Since December 2015, we – six social scientists from anthropology, bioethics, sociology and social studies of science – have run an ESRC-funded series of research seminars with social researchers, forensic and other scientists, policymakers, and commercial and civil society representatives. The idea for this series emerged during the organisers’ collaboration with a variety of forensic scientists. As our awareness of their latest work grew, we realised just how profoundly new forensic genetic technologies can change the way DNA is used in investigations.

DNA analysis has so far been applied to match DNA profiles, comparing whether biological material left at a crime scene or elsewhere is more likely to originate from the suspect or from someone else. Emerging applications, however, will not just compare profiles, but use DNA to predict an unknown person’s appearance (eg eye, hair or skin colour), genetic biogeographic ancestry (PDF), age, even biomedical traits such as genetic diseases. When, how and to what effect these technologies would be deployed remains unclear.

Over six events we take stock of existing knowledge about forensic genetic technologies and their uses; look at potentially emerging ones; examine how they can be compatible with human rights and civil liberties while supporting security and justice; and we identify areas in need of further investigation. These meetings build a cross-disciplinary network to continue such discussions after the series concludes in summer 2017.

Our seminar series exemplifies collaborative deliberation and research of the social and biological sciences that is vital to exploring how such technologies will contribute to society, and to ensuring they are used in legitimate and ethically sound ways.

The ESRC-funded seminar series ‘Genetics, technology, security and justice: Crossing, contesting and comparing boundaries‘ runs until June 2017.

Further reading:

  • Toom V, Wienroth M, et al (2016) ‘Approaching ethical, legal and social issues of emerging forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP) technologies comprehensively: Reply to “Forensic DNA phenotyping: Predicting human appearance from crime scene material for investigative purposes” by Manfred Kayser’, Forensic Science International: Genetics 22, e1-e4.
  • Wienroth M, Morling N, Williams R (2014) ‘Applying advances in forensic genetics: When global science meets local legality’, Recent Advances in DNA & Gene Sequences 8(2), 98-103.
  • Williams R, Wienroth M (2013) ‘Ethical, social and policy aspects of forensic genetics: A systematic review‘ (PDF). EUROFORGEN.

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