Genetic Future

Last week I noted a highly controversial plan by the UK Border Agency to begin using DNA and isotope testing to help determine the geographical origins of refugees, for use in making decisions about whether or not to grant asylum. 

A reader has just pointed me to this recent post on ScienceInsider indicating an apparent change in policy: the Border Agency has now stated that the trial will be “proof of concept” only, and that “no decisions on individual cases will be made using these techniques, and they will not be used for evidential purposes”. As ScienceInsider notes, this represents a pretty clear shift in language compared to earlier announcements.

Some of the furore around this policy was overstated (I agree with Razib’s comment that uncertain information can still be quite useful in the context of Bayesian assessments of the accuracy of an asylum seeker’s tale of woe), but the initial policy was still grossly premature. I welcome the Border Agency’s decision to take a step back and consider the implications before wading into the morass of genetic ancestry testing.

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  1. #1 Neil
    October 14, 2009

    There is now the opportunity for UK citizens and/or residents to petition the UK government on this:

    “We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Stop the Border Agency’s DNA testing pilot because it is not scientifically valid.”

    The blurb, by petition creator A. H. O. Thabeth, states:

    As John Travis, European News Editor of ScienceMag, wrote:

    Scientists are greeting with surprise and dismay a project to use DNA and isotope analysis of tissue from asylum seekers to evaluate their nationality and help decide who can enter the United Kingdom. “Horrifying,” “naïve,” and “flawed” are among the adjectives geneticists and isotope specialists have used to describe the “Human Provenance pilot project,” launched quietly in mid-September by the U.K. Border Agency. Their consensus: The project is not scientifically valid–or even sensible.

    “My first reaction is this is wildly premature, even ignoring the moral and ethical aspects,” says Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester, who pioneered human DNA fingerprinting.

    Quote from Professor Sir Alec J. Jeffreys used with permission.

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