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Be-Gen: Understanding the operational, strategic, and political implications of the National Genetic Database

Work package 2: strategic implications

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Belgian Science Policy (Belspo)
2014 to 2018
287 911.00 €
Promoter(s) IRCP: 
Tom Vander Beken
Stijn Van Daele
Promoter(s) - non IRCP: 
Bertrand Renard (NICC)
Paul De Hert (VUB)
Researcher(s) - IRCP: 
Sabine De Moor

Forensic DNA in Belgium

Since the 90’s the Belgian Government has been exploiting DNA to help criminal investigations (e.g., by identifying the source of genetic material found on crime scenes). In 1999 a law was voted to regulate its use – including the management by the National Institute for Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC) of the National Genetic Database (NGDB) which holds numerous DNA profiles sampled for the Justice Department. The NGDB can be used to relate judicial cases which may not a priori have anything to do with each other, by detecting whether they involve the same genetic profiles (i.e., in fine, the same individuals). Without a doubt, forensic DNA (i.e., genetic science in the service of justice) has revolutionized the pursuit of truth and helped numerous judicial investigations.

A long overdue evaluation and some upcoming mutations

However, the State has never carried out any evaluation neither of its benefits for society, nor of its impacts at large (i.e., positive and, potentially, negative effects). Indeed the use of DNA as evidence is not without raising serious questions in terms of the adequacy of the financial resources, the efficiency of communication, the ethical use of the collected information, etc. Moreover, in 2011 a new DNA law was voted to augment the range of applications of forensic DNA. Among other things, the conditions for recording profiles in the NGDB will be considerably extended, and Belgium will start to compare its genetic profiles with the other member states of the European Union, under the so-called Prüm Council Decisions. As a result, many more genetic profiles will be processed, and stored in the NGDB. Given the magnitude of that change, and the sensitive and powerful nature of forensic DNA, it is therefore extremely likely that this new law will initiate a series of significant transitions in the way the federal government handles justice: financial and human resources will have to be reallocated, new intelligence will be available, and serious issues may arise.

An operational, strategic and political study of forensic DNA

In the Be-Gen project we aim to study the implications of forensic DNA in order to improve how this technology is used towards a safer and more just society. The timing is just right: on the one hand, during a bit more than two decades, criminal investigations have employed DNA without any global evaluation, and on the other hand, through the new 2011 law which will come into force at the beginning of the project, we will witness significant mutations in the use of forensic evidence. As a partner of the project, the NICC has the advantage to contemplate a huge and nationwide fraction of forensic DNA activity through the NGDB, and benefits from its experience with DNA and judicial operations. In partnership with the Institute for International Research on Criminal Policy of Ghent University we offer to go beyond the study of the implication of forensic DNA at the case level, by considering the strategic implications of the NGDB at a national and international level. With the Department for Interdisciplinary Studies of Law of Vrije Universiteit Brussel, we will conduct a study of the adequacy of public policies in terms of efficacy of legal systems and respect of fundamental rights of individuals. With that in mind the Be-Gen (“Belgian Genetic Database”) project aims at Understanding the operational, strategic and political implications of the National Genetic Database (and, by extension, forensic DNA).

Three researchers, 12 issues and a European project called “PIES”

Three researchers work on this project for 4 years (and a part-time scientist for administrative assistance), during which they pursue the study of the operational (Work Package 1), strategic (Work Package 2) and political (Work Package 3) implications of the NGDB, realize a doctorate and support the PIES project (Work Package 4). The PIES project is a European Commission funded project, of which the NICC is the coordinator, and which studies a variety of aspects of forensic DNA in a European Union context (Belgium, France, the Netherlands, United Kingdom are official partners but the project concerns all EU member states). The Be-Gen and PIES projects would therefore work in synergy and complete each other. Each of the three first Work Packages (WP1, WP2, and WP3) has been designed to study 4 issues. The findings within each issue will lead to a technical report (thus a minimum of 12 reports in total), and recommendations will be tailored for the decision makers in the hope of improving public policies.

The Be-Gen project in a snapshot

Finally, here is a list of the 12 issues with research questions to concisely enlighten the meaning of each one of them:

  • WP1 : operational implications
    • Issue 1.1: The theory of forensic DNA
      • How is DNA used in judicial cases?
    • Issue 1.2: The empirical contribution of forensic DNA
      • How often and how is forensic DNA used in Belgium?
    • Issue 1.3: The relation between DNA and offenders
      • How does forensic DNA impact the offenders?
    • Issue 1.4: DNA in a society in mutation
      • What is the impact of the new DNA law on these questions?
  • WP2 : strategic implications (Ghent WP)
    • Issue 2.1: The theory of forensic intelligence
      • What is the contribution of forensic DNA beyond one judicial case?
    • Issue 2.2: Statistical modeling of forensic DNA
      • What image of crime and Belgian society does forensic DNA depict?
    • Issue 2.3: DNA vs. non-DNA based criminal intelligence
      • How does DNA compare with other forms of intelligence?
    • Issue 2.4: DNA in a society in mutation
      • What is the impact of the new DNA law on these questions?
  • WP3 : political implications
    • Issue 3.1: The theory of security policies
      • What are efficient and just security policies?
    • Issue 3.2: Recommendations for security policies
      • How could we improve the use of forensic DNA?
    • Issue 3.3: DNA in foreign legal systems
      • What can we learn by a comparison with other countries?
    • Issue 3.4: DNA in a society in mutation
      • What is the impact of the new DNA law on these questions?
Forensic DNA, crime analysis, DNA regulations, Prüm, criminal policy, public policies, strategic implications, environmental criminology