Seminar series on genetics, technology, security and justice. Crossing, contesting and comparing boundaries

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Health and Life Sciences

Abstract

Security concerns - about crime, terrorism, mass death atrocities and disasters - are a key driver for the development of new technologies, and human genetics research has played an important contribution here. DNA technologies provide vital resources for the identification of human remains and the production of information that can help to provide evidence in complex crimes.

Sometimes, new forensic technologies have been adopted rapidly while their adequate regulation has been delayed until, in specific instances, unintended uses and impacts have emerged after deployment (e.g. indefinite storage of DNA samples from children in criminal DNA databanks). In other cases, extensive legislative deliberations have preceded, and sometimes rejected, technology implementation. There is a need to collate existing knowledge about the opportunities and challenges that accompany the adoption of forensic genetic technologies to ensure that they respect privacy and human dignity.

Three linked observations will shape the focus of the seminar series.

(1) Comparing DNA uses in security and health contexts: Seminars will identify differences in aims, responsibilities, obligations, and underlying values between the two domains of security and health. For example, whilst issues of informed consent may be central to the use of genetics in healthcare and health insurance, justice and security contexts prioritise speedy identification of dangerous offenders, the production of credible evidence in court, or the unequivocal identification of victims. This prepares participants for the following work.

(2) Identifying issues in the use of medical data in security contexts: Seminars will explore the actual and potential issues that arise when medical data become available to security efforts via the use of novel forensic genetic technologies. Forensic uses of DNA have so far consisted of matching samples from crime scenes, unidentified persons, or volunteers, with existing DNA profiles (e.g. on a DNA database). Novel technologies are anticipated to provide much more information about the donor of a sample, for example their appearance, age, even behaviour. This can impact on the way society understands and treats health data, especially when information is vital in the face of serious criminal, terrorist or mass disaster threats. Seminars will also explore how such novel technologies have already been used, and compare the legal and ethical contexts of their application.

(3) Comparing uses of forensic genetic technologies across countries: DNA technologies and data are increasingly used across national borders. National variation in criminal laws, privacy legislation and police practices render this process very complex. For example, there are differences in who can be asked to give a DNA sample by police forces. Seminars will, by inviting leading scholars from Europe and the USA, compare practices and public and professional debates across a variety of jurisdictions. The development of good practice in the UK can be informed by learning from experience elsewhere, and expectations and misunderstandings in the cross-border use of these technologies can be addressed.

The seminars will bring together academic researchers, policy makers and practitioners from policing organisations, commercial forensic service providers, public sector organisations and civil society groups, in the UK and abroad, to discuss how such technologies can be used to support security while respecting freedom. A network of those involved will be established to disseminate existing and to design new research to inform UK policy and practice on the uses of genetic information to address the societal challenges of justice and security.

Planned Impact

This seminar series will impact on academic communities, criminal justice and disaster management practitioners, UK policy makers and public sector representatives, and wider publics.

(1) Practitioners, such as forensic service providers and senior representatives of law enforcement agencies, tend to be well informed about the ways that forensic technologies are deployed in their jurisdiction and abroad. They have practice-informed expectations about current technologies in use, but may not be aware of the reasons for other stakeholders' concerns about risks of technology use. Insights into non-practitioner perspectives - academic and civil society - will supplement practitioners' focus on utility and process with knowledge about social and ethical aspects of technologies, and how the use of the technology affects wider issues than forensic lab work and investigative practice. Equally, practitioners will become more aware of the complexity of technology adoption, and the opportunities and challenges brought by technology adoption across medical and forensic domains and by the cross-national use of technologies. Participating practitioners will be encouraged to contribute to, and collaborate in, new research idea generation and research projects.

(2) UK policy makers and public sector representatives will benefit from the consolidation of social science perspectives on this underexplored area as well as from the formation of a group of multi-disciplinary experts as a community of forensic practice and practice analysis. They will have opportunity to discuss policy and governance of genetic technologies development and emerging uses, and build links with those studying and practicing forensic science. Although scholarly and practical forensic science issues are highly significant, their visibility from social scientific perspectives is often obscured due to the tendency of forensic science to slip between academic disciplines.

(3) UK publics will benefit from information coming out of the seminar series that will assist in the assessment of existing social and natural science research on the security uses of genetic technologies. The inclusion in the seminars of civil society groups like Genewatch, Liberty, The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and Sense About Science and the Science Media Centre, will ensure that the perspectives of interest groups on civil liberties and science advocacy will be integral to discussions of current research and practice, as well as in new research idea generation. This, in turn, will enable publics to better form judgements about the benefits and risks posed by these uses. They will also benefit from practitioners' increased awareness of the wider social impacts of the use of genetic technologies on criminal justice and security practices.

Organisers and participants of this seminar series have worked in a variety of fields pertaining to criminal justice, disaster victim identification, genetics research, policing and public policy-making. They and their organisations will benefit from the exchange of experiences, a raised awareness of different perspectives, and the mutual learning that will take place during seminars and subsequent collaborations.

The seminar series will foster a more systematic approach to the collaboration of multi- and interdisciplinary expert communities. By drawing on diverse expertise and a broad spectrum of perspectives, the discussions throughout the event series will provide insights into practices of security and criminal justice uses of forensic genetic technologies, thus facilitating broader awareness to complement the depth of participants' specialisations. These discussions are essential for developing good practice models for the use of the science and technologies of genetics.
 
Description The ESRC seminar series explores emerging issues in the use of forensic genetics technologies for security and justice purposes, and identifies new areas that are in crucial need of research. Each seminar focuses on a specific topic in this context. With all of the planned six seminars having taken place between December 2015 and July 2017, several key findings and new areas for research have already emerged; they are summarised here.

Seminar 1: 'Genetics and crime. Contested boundaries, benefits and risks'
Communication, cross-disciplinarity, and improving the governance of technology were the key themes of the inaugural seminar. Communication between different stakeholders about technology requirements and limitations remains to be improved. New research is required to explore how usefulness and social legitimacy of new technologies can be assessed more quickly, how less useful or less legitimate technologies can be identified and avoided, and how useful technologies and good governance mechanisms can be co-developed, overcoming the 'law lag'. E.g., research into reliable data infrastructures and their robust governance to manage forensic genetic data is necessary.

Seminar 2: 'Comparing stakeholder discourses about genetic technologies'
Key themes were (i) discourses of credibility, especially standardisation of practices at the international level, and (ii) utility of forensic genetics technologies. Key questions, especially raised by representatives of civic society organisations, included: whether international ethical norms and standards are feasible, and how a wider set of stakeholders can be involved in standardisation. Forensic scientists and practitioners, and representatives of the judiciary, saw need for work on standards for acceptable quality of data; verbal interpretation of probabilities; and probabilistic algorithms for interpreting and presenting evidence. Social science stakeholders identified the need for anticipatory research into social and ethical dimensions in technology development; and asked if analogies between forensics and medicine can be drawn in terms of translating scientific knowledge into operational innovations.

Seminar 3: 'Comparing the use of DNA in criminal investigations & DVI across European borders'
Seminar 3 explored differences and tensions between local and global levels of forensic genetics, adversarial and inquisitorial criminal justice systems, forensic and social analyses, and personal and social identities. The discussions identified that in-depth interpretivist studies capable of exploring how forensic science agency is located within the investigative order are needed. For Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) the need for enquiries was identified into the notion of 'exhaustive recovery' of human remains and its investigative, social and economic impacts. Attention was drawn to considerable need to attend to practices, implications, and the governance of identity practices and politics in the use of new technologies, e.g. how assertions of the genetic nature of relationships, appearance, and social groupings claim to enable attributing social identities via the use of forensic genetics technologies.

Seminar 4: 'Comparing forensic and medical genetic technologies'
The fourth seminar discussed challenges that might arise from multiple uses of genetic information, and the responsibilities that rest with collectors, providers, and guardians of such information. Five overlapping themes emerged as basis of further research on what can be learnt from comparing practices and governance between forensics and medicine: (1) exploring the socio-cultural positionings of key concepts (e.g. 'investigation,' 'body,' different 'identities') that underpin these areas of work; (2) considering overlaps and interfaces in genetic practice between the two fields; (3) comparing the 'health' and 'forensic' cultures to analyse how genetics is constituted in each field, how publics are constructed, how trust is produced etc.; (4) exploring how 'participation' and 'ownership' are framed in forensic and medical genetics; and (5) comparing governance.

Seminar 5: 'Securitisation and forensic genetics'
Our fifth seminar aimed to expand the conventional perspective on forensic genetics by focusing attention on pro-active/pre-emptive security measures, exploring how practices and institutions may differ between investigative and surveillance uses of forensic genetics technologies. Some of the key themes included (1) the expansion of technologies, e.g. via mission creep, and its impact on public trust discourse; (2) the role of (social) media, e.g. in side-lining balanced societal debate; (3) the variety of contexts and domains within which forensic genetics operates, and the need to explore epistemic clashes and tensions when technology is used across contexts; (4) knowledge, meaning and identity, especially when different hermeneutics of these come together in the different uses and contexts of forensic genetics; and (5) temporality, e.g. news of forensic significance travelling more quickly than forensic facts being established.

Seminar 6: 'Genetics, conflict, race and nation building'
The final event generated discussions on (1) ethnicity and race, e.g. boundary work in which forensic genetics technologies are deployed in either subscribing or ascribing identity, at personal, national and other levels; (2) the role of forensic genetics in social and 'reparation' rather than criminal justice; (3) marketization and professionalization processes in the use of forensic genetics, e.g. commodification of bodies and human remains as capital in DVI; and (4) the differing gazes of forensic genetics that come to bear in DVI when forensic archaeology and genetics meet with social justice and social hermeneutics.
Exploitation Route Academic
The seminar discussions have identified areas of social science that can create impact in the security and justice context and also identified several avenues for further research in the social sciences. Discussions have started to formulate research questions and rationales. In conjunction with the network building opportunities via the seminars, collaborative and cross-disciplinary research proposals can be developed. Following the end of the seminar series, some of the organisers and speakers of the seminar series have begun to develop one large project proposal on some of the issues emerging from the seminar series.

Non-academic
Many key non-academic stakeholders attended the seminars, including key policy makers from the Home Office and from civic society. These contributors and users of the seminar series have been encouraged to collaborate with academic researchers in attending to the research avenues identified and formulated. Discussions at seminars, to which policy-makers, forensic practitioners, Third Sector/civic society representatives have contributed, provide information for producers, commissioners and users of forensic genetics technologies to reflect and improve current practices and governance of forensic genetics use.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy,Other

URL http://www.ncl.ac.uk/peals/research/forensicgenetics/
 
Description Findings from talks and discussions during the course of the seminar series have impacted on the way that the PI of this grant, together with several speakers at the series' individual events, have shaped their contributions to the policy and societal debate about genetic technologies for security and justice purposes. In turn, this has impacted on the content and course of a specific national debate, informing and broadening it by adding empirically and conceptually informed social science and humanities perspectives which had previously been dismissed as irrelevant. Specifically, drawing on insights from cross-disciplinary knowledge transfer between social and forensic scientists, law enforcement representatives, and policy makers during the seminar series, the PI and several speakers have been contributing to the German debate about legislating for new forensic genetic technologies since December 2016. Following a high profile murder investigation in the South-Western German city of Freiburg in October 2016, with the perpetrator being an asylum seeker, a number of vocal policy makers, police and prosecution representatives, forensic geneticists, and political groups have called for a revision to the legislation on using DNA in the criminal justice system in Germany. Until then, there had been close to no visible public debate about DNA analyses for the criminal justice system, apart from some discussions around the introduction of the national German crime DNA database in the late 1990s. In the current debate, advocates argue that technologies [such as those discussed in the seminar series (most prominently forensic DNA phenotyping and biogeographical ancestry prediction)] provide the technical capacities for enhancing investigations in a reliable and proven way, but that the law prevents investigators from using these, essentially doing a disservice to victims and families, and protecting perpetrators. The debate was focused on enabling a technological fix to a highly charged, coupled discourse of crime and migration without considering or understanding the underlying scientific limitations and societal challenges of using these technologies in the contemporary German context. The PI has worked with colleagues in Germany in expanding the debate to include social and ethical aspects as well as technological ones. As a result, the legislative process has been enhanced, and what was initially meant to be a quick, emotion-driven legal change without a coherent programme of oversight and training for the use of these technologies or even a sound understanding of utility and legitimacy of their uses among policy makers and criminal justice actors in place, has been transformed into a societal debate about forensic genetics, migration, and the notion of responsible science in society. Evidence: The head of the German Stain Commission (Spurenkommission), Prof Peter Schneider, has modified his position on the introduction of these technologies publicly; the legislative initiative has been taken into the next legislative period rather than approved without sufficient governance structures in place; news media have expanded their reporting about the technologies and have begun to include social and ethical aspects as well as limitations of the proposed technologies; further societal actors such as charities and the Council of German Sinti and Roma are developing a policy position on the use of new forensic genetics technologies The PI, working in an emerging close collaboration with a speaker from the seminar series, has been interviewed by German media (since March 2017, including for public broadcasters DeutschlandFunk and DeutschlandRadio), has delivered evidence to the German Ministry for Justice and Consumer Protection on socio-ethical aspects of forensic DNA phenotyping and biogeographical ancestry prediction (March 2017), presented on the UK regulatory landscape and its lessons for the German debate at a cross-disciplinary symposium which included several population geneticists and police representatives (June 2017), and has been invited to give evidence to the Council for German Sinti and Roma (forthcoming, 27 March 2018). The debate is on-going.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

 
Description H&SS Faculty Bid Preparation Fund
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Funding ID OSR/0327/FRES/0004 
Organisation Newcastle University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 08/2018
 
Description EUROFORGEN partnership 
Organisation European Forensic Genetics Network of Excellence
Country European Union (EU) 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution Outcomes from the seminar discussions have been shared with the EUROFORGEN Network of Excellence partners, principally the existing, emerging and anticipated social, ethical and legal aspects of forensic genetics technologies, their governance, and actual and potential applications. Exploring these aspects is part of the brief, role and aim of the Network activities, as part of efforts to inform the forensic genetics community (academic, practitioner) and law enforcement and judiciary in the European Union on capacity, limitations and role of forensic genetics technologies in the delivery of security and justice.
Collaborator Contribution Partners of EUROFORGEN attend the seminar series on a regular basis, and several of the Network's partners have presented as speakers.
Impact The seminar series has offered a forum to the EUROFORGEN Network of Excellence to further its own discussion of social, ethical, legal aspects of forensic genetics technologies. In part informed by the discussions of the seminar series, forensic geneticists have engage in public debates about their work and the use of it in their respective countries, especially in the UK, in Germany, and in Spain. This has also lead to work on a public guide to forensic genetics in criminal investigations, which has been published together with Sense About Science (separate collaboration and partnership). The partners from EUROFORGEN have provided technical insight into emerging technologies and their use in society, enabling ESRC seminar series organisers and others to develop further social scientific and bioethical insight into the field, and contributing to public debates in the European Union. This collaboration is multi-disciplinary, including sociology, Science and Technology Studies, Forensic Science Studies, cultural anthropology, socio-legal studies, policy studies, forensic genetics, molecular biology, medical genetics, among others.
Start Year 2015
 
Description EXCHANGE research project 
Organisation University of Coimbra
Country Portugal 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I have worked with the EXCHANGE project team by providing feedback on their work on numerous occasions (meetings, workshops, personal communications); have facilitated a forum for the presentation of their work and access to latest insights into the forensic genetics field (via the ESRC seminar series); and provided information, data and contacts for their research work (on potential interview respondents).
Collaborator Contribution MW has been invited to contribute to a workshop exploring the ethical aspects of using next generation sequencing/massive parallel sequencing for forensic/criminal justice and related purposes. This event is organised by the ECR-funded project EXCHANGE (University of Coimbra) in collaboration with a colleague from the National DNA Database Ethics Group, UK. Discussions and findings will directly influence the work and outputs of EXCHANGE research, and inform further discussions in the NDNAD ethics group on this issue. The workshop will take place in Frankfurt/Main on 20 February 2017.
Impact One output is a position paper published in 'Forensic Science International: Genetics' (Toom, Wienroth et al. 2016). Another is the presentation by the project lead of EXCHANGE at ESRC seminar 3 (July 2016).
Start Year 2015
 
Description Making Sense of Forensic Genetics 
Organisation European Forensic Genetics Network of Excellence
Country European Union (EU) 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution Two members of the research team (Matthias Wienroth and Robin Williams) contributed to the writing of the public guide 'Making Sense of Forensic Genetics,' published January 2017; a further member (Chris Lawless) was a peer reviewer for this publication.
Collaborator Contribution Sense About Science provided the science communication infrastructure and expertise. EUROFORGEN provided the funds/budget, and forensic genetics experts for the writing of the guide.
Impact The publicly accessible (easy to read and free to access/use) guide 'Making Sense of Forensic Genetics. What can DNA tell you about a crime.'
Start Year 2016
 
Description Making Sense of Forensic Genetics 
Organisation Sense about Science
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Two members of the research team (Matthias Wienroth and Robin Williams) contributed to the writing of the public guide 'Making Sense of Forensic Genetics,' published January 2017; a further member (Chris Lawless) was a peer reviewer for this publication.
Collaborator Contribution Sense About Science provided the science communication infrastructure and expertise. EUROFORGEN provided the funds/budget, and forensic genetics experts for the writing of the guide.
Impact The publicly accessible (easy to read and free to access/use) guide 'Making Sense of Forensic Genetics. What can DNA tell you about a crime.'
Start Year 2016
 
Description Ministry of Justice, Germany 
Organisation Ministry of Justice
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution I have been invited to present at a symposium on the subject of legislating for new forensic technologies, organised by the Ministry of Justice in Berlin on 21 March 2017. This invitation comes in response to the Open Letter (Freiburg letter) I have co-authored with colleagues in Germany, which contributes to the public debate around introducing new forensic DNA analyses (forensic DNA phenotpying) into law enforcement in Germany.
Collaborator Contribution The Ministry provides the forum for this engagement.
Impact A first outcome is the invitation in itself, asking social scientists and ethicists to contribute to the policy and public debate around legislating for new technologies for security and justice. The German debate has so far lacked an involvement of social scientists and ethicists, and has been uninformed of social, legal and ethical aspects of introducing such new DNA analyses into policing practice. The Ministry of Justice has now recognised the value of inviting social scientists and ethicists to be heard in the debate at union government level. Further outcomes will be added when the symposium has been held.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Contribution to German debate on Forensic Genetics Governance 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact On 28 December 2016, Matthias Wienroth was interviewed on radio by the German regional public broadcaster SWRinfo as part of a daily affairs show. He discussed the social, legal and ethical aspects of new forensic genetic technologies that are currently not permitted for use in Germany (but that are in the UK), drawing on his research and the insights made from the talks and discussions at the ESRC seminar series. In doing so he has contributed to the political debate that has developed in Germany since 2016 about adopting new, more intrusive DNA analyses in police investigations. The purpose of the interview was to raise awareness to the complex issues of the societal use of these specific technologies, and to broaden the debate in the region and nationally to include the perspectives of social analysts and bioethicists, among others, in the debate which has not heard those before.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description ESRC Biosocial Research Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Matthias Wienroth contributed to the ESRC blog to introduce the seminar series as engaging with, and representing an aspect of biosocial research. The blog entry provided a brief social commentary on the history of forensic genetics in criminal justice, and made the argument that technologies are also always social devices, and as such are in need of deliberation about their (potential) uses, limitations, adoption. The post included several links for those readers interested in finding out more about the topic, and included a section on the seminar series and its rationale, aims, and work.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://blog.esrc.ac.uk/2016/11/29/genetics-technology-security-and-justice-the-social-life-of-dna/
 
Description Making Sense of Forensic Genetics 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Collaborating with Sense About Science and EUROFORGEN Network of Excellence, two co-applicants of the ESRC seminar series (Matthias Wienroth and Robin Williams) contributed to the writing of the public guide with the intention of raising awareness of the role of DNA in criminal investigations, the uses and limitations of forensic genetics technologies, and the social and ethical aspects of using such technologies. A third co-applicant (Chris Lawless) was one of the peer reviewers for this publication. Work in the seminar series led to the realisation that general publics as well as professional publics and policy makers have very little access to well presented, comprehensive and informative yet accessibly delivered material on the use of forensic genetics in criminal justice. This public (and free) guide is a first step. Further plans are to develop versions in other languages.

The publication of the report has drawn considerable interest: e.g. co-authors have given interviews on BBC Radio 4 and a radio programme in Spain; the Royal Statistical Society tweeted about the report; the website published an article about the public guide and its topic on 8 February; the Sydney Morning Herald called the guide a 'landmark report' in an article on 5 February.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL http://senseaboutscience.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Making-Sense-of-Forensic-Genetics.pdf
 
Description Open Letter on Forensic Genetics in Germany 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A group of social scientists at the Universities of Freiburg and Frankfurt/Main, including Matthias Wienroth, published an open letter in light of the German debate on adopting emerging DNA analyses into the criminal justice system. The authors urge for a comprehensive debate and engagement with not just technical but also operational, social, legal and ethical aspects of these technologies before they are introduced into practice in Germany. Such a debate can contribute to ensuring robust legislation and improving police training and practices when interpreting genetic analyses and using such genetic data. The open letter was distributed to various media outlets and placed online.
One considerable impact from this intervention is the invitation of two authors, including Matthias Wienroth, to speak at a symposium organised by the German Justice Department in Berlin in March 2017. Additional impact arises from engagement with various journalists asking for further information, and deepening collaboration with forensic geneticists.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017
URL https://stsfreiburg.wordpress.com