Friday, October 02, 2009

"Scientists Decry Isotope, DNA Testing of ‘Nationality"

In the special issue of Science out today, a news item describes a dismaying misuse of science and technology. As one of its tests, the Borders Agency in Britain is piloting use of DNA analysis and isotope testing of soft tissues to verify (or not) whether a person applying for asylum in the U.K. comes from the country they claim to have come from.
"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. ...

After reviewing the Border Agency's plans, Jeffreys [wrote] in an e-mail to Science: "The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality - people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed."
Because the hue and cry over this is so widespread in the scientific community, I wondered if this might be a case of those in power trying to use science to intimidate rather than actually expecting to get at the truth. Questionable asylum-seekers might be threatened with the use of "scientific tests" in hopes that they will admit to falsifying their country of origin. This might be deemed reasonable if the tests would actually produce relevant information, but, instead, what is questionable is the attempt to assign country of origin by these means.

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