DNA pioneer calls for innocent to be taken off database

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The Independent Online

The man who discovered DNA fingerprinting demanded a change in the law today to remove the profiles of innocent people from the national database.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, known as the "grandfather of DNA", spoke out on the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the technique.

He criticised the Government for allowing the profiles of the innocent to remain on the database, despite the fact that they have never been charged or convicted.

Calling for the change in the law, he told the BBC: "My view is very, very simple - has been right from the outset.

"Innocent people do not belong on that database. Branding them as future criminals is not a proportionate response in the fight against crime.

"I've met a fair number of these people and some of these people are very, very upset and are distressed by the fact that their DNA is on that database. They cannot get it off and they feel as if they're branded as criminals."

Sir Alec's comments will be used by critics of the database in their fight to remove the innocent from it.

Under current rules, anyone arrested for an offence has their genetic fingerprint stored for life - which police say helped them solve more than 17,000 crimes last year.

But human rights judges in Strasbourg ruled last year that the "blanket" policy was a breach of the right to privacy.

Sir Alec, 59, stumbled across his groundbreaking discovery in a "eureka" moment.

Just after 9am on September 10 1984, he realised that variable patterns in the structure of DNA could be used to distinguish one person from another. The technique led to the development of DNA fingerprinting.

It has also been developed to help solve unanswered questions and disputes over personal identity, paternity, immigration, conservation and cloning.

The University of Leicester, where Sir Alec has worked for the past 32 years, marked the occasion today with a series of events, including a giant DNA model in the building where the discovery was made, a Darwin/DNA Day with public lectures and discussion forums, and schools outreach and social programmes.

And on the 25th anniversary the scientist, who has been awarded the university's highest accolade of an honorary distinguished fellowship, spoke of the importance of allowing academics freedom to research.

In an interview commissioned by the university from education media consultants Media FHE, he said academics should be able to pursue "unfettered, fundamental, curiosity-driven" research.

He said "blue skies" research, which led to discoveries such as his own, was "the ultimate engine of all scientific and technological evolution", and warned: "You lose that at your peril."

Attempts to set too many priorities and strategies in research led to "factory science" which worked towards predictable outcomes.

He said: "I am saying you have to have a mixed economy.

"You don't have to put all your eggs into this great common basket that will deliver answers to questions that you can define, because the far more exciting thing is that it delivers questions that you never knew existed - and that to me is infinitely more valuable because that sets the future agenda."

The professor, who said today he is still at the university because of its sense of community, said he remains excited about the potential of science to reveal the unknown.

He said the discovery he would be most excited to see in the next 25 years does not involve anything to do with his own research, adding: "No-brainer. Extra-terrestrial life. I would love to see that before I die."