Protests against the decision to shut down Berlin’s world-renowned forensic DNA-lab

The Charité (Berlin) has decided to shut down its forensic DNA-lab by the end of March 2021, allegedly for budgetary reasons. Forensic geneticists worldwide protest the decision, as this lab’s distinguished contributions to research, education, and law enforcement in and beyond Berlin and Germany enjoy international recognition.[1] Shutting down this lab means that the criminal casework of Germany’s capital will be done by the labs of state criminal investigation offices or by private companies throughout the EU contracted by Berlin’s investigative authorities. It also means that Berlin and Germany will lose a central institution of academic training and research in a field so highly relevant for society.

Our initiative has critically yet constructively commented upon German forensic genetics since 2016, with a focus on societal, ethical, and methodological issues.[2] We join the ranks of protesters against the Charité’s decision because we strongly believe that forensic genetics in Germany can only master its societal, ethical, and methodological challenges if its place of academic training, debate, integrity and research capacity remains within university settings. We laid out these concerns already in 2018[3]: Shutting down these university labs and shifting their tasks to the investigative authorities’ labs or private companies will deprive Germany of the most responsible and skilled forensic geneticists we have.

This is a problem because criminal investigation depends on the input and support of academic, university-based researchers specialized in forensic molecular biology. We all want law enforcement to be able to pursue its important tasks in accordance with highest standards. Investigative efficiency is but one of these standards: For forensic molecular biology, a field of utmost scientific complexity and societal relevance, these must at the same time also be academic standards, such as methodological precision and robustness in the light of justified criticism. But academic standards also include standards of ethical, legal, and social accountability. They are part and parcel of any academic quality management today. Despite our argument that forensic genetics in German universities needs to embrace these standards more fully, we believe the conditions for a responsible, scientifically correct, and sensitive handling of the problems and effects are most feasible and monitorable there.

Crucially, the lab at Charité is the home of a centrally important DNA reference database, the YHRD. This unique research database has been set up by the Charité forensic genetic lab with unparalleled scientific ambition and sophistication. It is frequently tapped by criminal investigation authorities from around the world and remains an indispensable tool on which forensic DNA procedures are based. As it remains unclear where the database will be hosted in the future, shutting down the forensic genetics lab means depriving this database of its academic context; it will remove this database from scientific and ethical supervision – just like the existing databases of commercial DNA test providers.

The database has recently been subject to ethical and methodological critique in international publications.[4] The issues raised are particularly concerning for vulnerable groups and minorities, especially Uyghurs and Roma/Sinti. So far, there have not been comprehensive enough attempts to make the YHRD comply with the current ethical standards of international research bodies in human genetics. This should, however, be a priority for all academic actors and institutions responsible for and involved with the YHRD. And yet, if the YHRD loses its academic basis, the quality of the database will most probably remain in an ethically problematic state. Only in an academic context, with comprehensive ethical standards and open-minded interdisciplinary dialogue, the ethical and societal risks of the database can be mitigated in a responsible way.

In a broader sense, if investigative authorities were to become the decisive players in the further development of forensic genetics in Germany, instead of academic bodies, we doubt that Germany would still be the prestigious hub of international forensic genetics it is today. Our research findings give us reason to assume that, when it comes to DNA data, some representatives of German investigative authorities lack sensitivity for research ethics as well as for other ethical and societal concerns.[5] Hence, we fear that academic standards of ethics and methodology could be disregarded.

We also demand that the societal, ethical, and methodological challenges of forensic genetics be met with the utmost care and diligence. Forensic geneticists at German universities might see themselves as torn between two different sorts of normative requirements – a sense of duty for investigative efficiency on the one hand and a sense of duty for academic standards on the other. But they shall keep in mind that their genuine contribution to criminal investigation stands for scientificity and academic rigor and integrity. Scientific results can at times be at odds with the investigators’ demand for quick and easy delivery and may even be squarely opposed to investigative efficiency. Only if the position of forensic geneticists at German universities is strong can they fulfill their role of representing academic rigor and integrity. Shutting down their labs is very contra-productive and even dangerous.

In the next few days, an Open Letter will be up on this website, addressing politicians and Charité and demanding that they reconsider their decision to shut down the lab.

[1] Open Letter by the German Working Group of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, (9.3.2021); Open Letter by the German Stain Commission, (9.3.2021); Statement by the German Society for Forensics (DGRM), (9.3.2021).

[2] Buchanan, Nicholas, Fabian Staubach, Matthias Wienroth, Peter Pfaffelhuber, Mihai Surdu, Anna Lipphardt, Anna Köttgen, Denise Syndercombe-Court, and Veronika Lipphardt. 2018. “Forensic DNA Phenotyping Legislation Cannot Be Based on “Ideal FDP” – a Response to Caliebe, Krawczak and Kayser (2017).” Forensic science international. Genetics 34:e13-e14. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2018.01.009.

Toom, Victor, Matthias Wienroth, Amade M’charek, Barbara Prainsack, Robin Williams, Troy Duster, Torsten Heinemann, Corinna Kruse, Helena Machado, and Erin Murphy. 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. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2016.01.010.

Bradbury, Cedric, Anna Köttgen, and Fabian Staubach. 2019. “Off-Target Phenotypes in Forensic DNA Phenotyping and Biogeographic Ancestry Inference: A Resource.” Forensic science international. Genetics 38:93–104. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2018.10.010.

Weitz, Sarah, and Nicholas Buchanan. 2017. “Eine Technologie der Angstkultur.Freispruch (11): 13–17.

Lipphardt, Veronika. 2018. “Vertane Chancen? Die aktuelle politische Debatte um Erweiterte DNA-Analysen in Ermittlungsverfahren.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 41 (3): 279–301. doi:10.1002/bewi.201801900.

Staubach, Fabian. 2017. “Note Limitations of DNA Legislation.” Nature 545 (7652): 30. doi:10.1038/545030c.

Pfaffelhuber, Peter, Franziska Grundner-Culemann, Veronika Lipphardt, and Franz Baumdicker. 2019. “How to Choose Sets of Ancestry Informative Markers: A Supervised Feature Selection Approach.” Forensic science international. Genetics 132 (46): 102259. doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2020.102259.

Wienroth, Matthias. 2020. “Value Beyond Scientific Validity: Let’s RULE (Reliability, Utility, LEgitimacy).” Journal of Responsible Innovation 7 (sup1): 92–103. doi:10.1080/23299460.2020.1835152.

Plümecke, Tino: Erweiterte DNA-Analysen in der Schweiz. GID, Juli 2020.

Lipphardt, Veronika, Nicholas Buchanan, Peter Pfaffelhuber, Fabian Staubach, Matthias Wienroth (forthcoming). Interdisziplinäre Überlegungen zu Erweiterten DNA-Analysen. Jahrbuch für Wissenschaft und Ethik.

In a large number of media articles over the past 4 years, we have expressed our criticism and recommendations for a better handling of DNA analyses in forensics:

[3] Lipphardt, Anna, Peter Pfaffelhuber, Veronika Lipphardt, and Matthias Wienroth (2018): “Fahndung nach dem genetischen Phantom: Bayern will umstrittene DNA-Analyse erlauben.”, (9.3.2021).

[4] Moreau, Yves. 2019. “Crack down on Genomic Surveillance.” Nature 576 (7785): 36–38. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-03687-x.

Forzano, Francesca, Maurizio Genuardi, and Yves Moreau. 2021. “ESHG Warns Against Misuses of Genetic Tests and Biobanks for Discrimination Purposes.” European journal of human genetics: EJHG. doi:10.1038/s41431-020-00786-6.

Jones, Kathryn M., Robert Cook-Deegan, Charles N. Rotimi, Shawneequa L. Callier, Amy R. Bentley, Hallam Stevens, Kathryn A. Phillips, Yves Moreau et al. 2021. “Complicated Legacies: The Human Genome at 20.” Science (New York, N.Y.) 371 (6529): 564–69. doi:10.1126/science.abg5266.

Ellebrecht, Nils and Dominik Weber (in print). Verbotener function creep: Genetische Herkunftsbestimmung im Spannungsfeld forensischer DNA-Analysen, polizeilicher Ermittlung und rechtlicher Vorgaben.

Ellebrecht, Nils and Dominik Weber (2020): “Risiken erweiterter DNA-Analysen. Rechtliche und institutionelle Regulierung in den Niederlanden und England/Wales.” Kriminalistik 1/2020.

Lipphardt, Veronika/ Rappold, Gudrun/Surdu, Mihai (forthcoming): Representing vulnerable populations in genetic studies: The case of the Roma. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.13286.04165

Lipphardt, V./Surdu, M. (under review): DNA Data from Roma in forensic genetic studies and databases: Risks and challenges. Preprint DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.16641.48484.

[5] Lipphardt, Veronika. 2018. “Vertane Chancen? Die aktuelle politische Debatte um Erweiterte DNA-Analysen in Ermittlungsverfahren.” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte 41 (3): 279–301. doi:10.1002/bewi.201801900.