25 years of DNA fingerprinting
Exactly 25 years ago today, Alec Jeffreys, Professor of Genetics at the University of Leicester discovered a technique that has subsequently had an incalculable effect on society, helping to solve criminal cases, resolve immigration arguments and clarify questions of paternity, not to mention creating one of the biggest civil liberties issues of our times. Working in the laboratory, Sir Alec recalls, he and his technician were simply following their noses. They had “absolutely no idea” of the applications that would result from the discovery they stumbled upon.
“I have never approached an experiment with a desire to solve a practical problem,” he observes, pinning down his moment of discovery to precisely 9.05am on Monday 10 September 1984. “My forensic thoughts at 8.55 on that morning were precisely zero; they simply were not there. The technology comes first and then suggests the applications, not the other way around, and you see this over and over again.”
But just as he has spoken out about the ethical and moral issues concerning the use of the technology he made possible, Sir Alec is a staunch defender of Britain’s curiosity-driven research. And the 25th anniversary of his discovery is, he believes, the right time to be discussing its future.
“As scientists, we have to be accountable to the public purse for the money we are spending, but if you take it too far – and in my view it has gone far too far now – it actually stifles the creativity of the very thing you are trying to promote.”
His warning is simple: applied science can be managed from the top down, but we apply the same approach to pure science “at our peril”. “It is blue-skies research that is the ultimate driver – delivering the new techniques, concepts and tools that we need to progress”.