"UC Berkeley offer to test DNA of incoming students sparks debate"
June 4, 2010 1:32 AM   Subscribe

LA Times: "When UC Berkeley officials came up with the idea of asking all new students to volunteer a DNA swab as part of an unusual fall orientation program, they expected to stimulate discussion. They weren't quite prepared for how much."
Inside Higher Ed: "Unwinding Berkeley's DNA Test"
posted by andoatnp (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wow. That anyone would think to try this at any major university is amusing, that the faculty thought to try this at Berkeley is inexplicable. My favorite explanation I'm entertaining is that a flaky group of Berkeley faculty decided to celebrate the end of the semester with Operation: Troll Hard.
posted by vapidave at 2:34 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Maybe they're so focused on positive freedoms that questions about negative liberty don't even occur to them.
posted by codswallop at 2:44 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think that's an awesome invitation for social hackery and fooldom. would they notice I swabbed my dogs saliva? (the article says they're sending these tests to students and not taking them in person.)
posted by krautland at 3:40 AM on June 4, 2010


codswallop: Maybe they're so focused on positive freedoms that questions about negative liberty don't even occur to them.

from the first link: no one would be penalized for refusing.

Sounds suspiciously voluntary, but I guess only a really clever student would be able to figure that out. Maybe the admission standards at UC Berkeley are too low?

I wonder if the university permits Red Cross blood donations on campus. That too is a voluntary DNA sample that will be tested for among other things HIV and hepatitis.
posted by three blind mice at 3:46 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Given that the results are confidential and the program is optional, I don't see why anyone would bother faking it; just don't send it in if you don't want to.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:48 AM on June 4, 2010


After all, the (genetically) innocent have nothing to hide.
posted by jenkinsEar at 3:57 AM on June 4, 2010


Fucking stupid.
posted by delmoi at 4:08 AM on June 4, 2010


What is it about the administration and faculty at American institutions of learning (heh) that predispose them to such often painfully clueless behavior? "Woefully naive" is very apt. Berkeley failed to anticipate response from watchdog groups and probably didn't even consider that they'd be handing this information back to students who are still slowly coming to grips with the idea that posting high-resolution images of themselves with bongs, beer and otherwise, on Facebook.

Given the poor track record of universities in keeping private stuff private (stories, I have them), there's no good reason to think that the even the scarce data returned won't end up elsewhere. It would be possible to design a pilot program in such a fashion that the data would be safely anonymized and available to each student, but I doubt Berkeley has done so. Everyone involved must watch Gattaca and write a five page essay on why casually requesting people's genetic information is bad.
posted by adipocere at 5:02 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't believe that the human subjects review committee ever signed off on this project, first of all. And at UC Berkeley, of all places.

If the idea is that the only way to get students talking about controversial subjects is to run the most extreme projects possible up the flagpole and see if they'll not get shot down, which is what it seems to be, well ..... welcome to the Judd Apatow school of research design, I guess.
posted by blucevalo at 5:24 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is clearly some clever form of research into unexplored areas of stupidity.
posted by DreamerFi at 5:28 AM on June 4, 2010


I had this long angry comment written out, something about envy, a guy jumping out of the bushes, organic cantaloupes and homeless kids one block away from campus. After reading it all, I remembered something. "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I thought to myself, yeah, that's what my comment is. But then I had an OhShit moment. It wasn't my comment I was talking about.
posted by bam at 6:04 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Big thing.

In the very near future, surveillance, big brotherhood, erosion of liberties is only going to slip further down the steep slope and there is nothing we can do about it.

Oh yes, the lead is by the shining beacons of democracy.
posted by Jagan at 6:09 AM on June 4, 2010


Fucking stupid.

I think it's awesome, but that's because I read the articles.

From the article: "Dubbed "Bring Your Genes to Cal," the program is part of UC Berkeley's annual "On the Same Page" program, in which incoming students, like those at many colleges, typically are asked to read the same book over the summer and discuss them in fall seminars."

This is very obviously not meant to be a comprehensive research project or an institutional invasion of privacy: it's meant to give their students a chance to participate, or to choose not to, in something that has wide-ranging, complex and controversial implications. It's got almost nothing to do with individual student results, as far as I can see, and everything to do with getting students to think about the costs, benefits and implications of the tests, and to have a common experience thereby.

Getting people thinking about this stuff early, in a setting where they can decline to participate at no penalty, is unambiguously good.
posted by mhoye at 6:19 AM on June 4, 2010 [14 favorites]


If this had been presented to me, both at 18 and right now, at age 47, I'd willingly have complied. I'd LOVE to know what I could find out from my genes. The personal freedom thing wouldn't have entered my mind. So is it that I'm stupid and not recognizing the greater implications? Perhaps. But I'm really, really interested in knowing what I can learn through studying my genes.

*sigh* I think I'm living an unexamined life.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:39 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


From my observations, if you want to get DNA samples from college students, it's not very difficult at all.
posted by Faint of Butt at 6:48 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is very obviously not meant to be a comprehensive research project or an institutional invasion of privacy: it's meant to give their students a chance to participate, or to choose not to, in something that has wide-ranging, complex and controversial implications.

If it weren't seen by some observers as a project fraught with potential invasion of privacy concerns, where would the "controversial implications" be in the first place?

almost nothing to do with individual student results, as far as I can see, and everything to do with getting students to think about the costs

One incoming freshman was quoted as saying that he saw no downside to the DNA request at all. So, again, if it's no big deal, what are the costs?

Getting people thinking about this stuff early, in a setting where they can decline to participate at no penalty, is unambiguously good.

I don't think it's "unambiguously" good at all.
posted by blucevalo at 7:24 AM on June 4, 2010


Gattaca! Gattaca!
posted by The Bellman at 7:32 AM on June 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


The students, or anyone, should be able to be trusted with their own genetic data, if they want to know it. The watchdog groups and all the other handwringers are perfectly correct however, in saying that outside entities, including 23andme, and insurance companies etc, are the ones to worry about. This is depressing as it says that, on a societal level, we are not prepared to gather, analyse and use genetic/genomic data on a grand scale without nasty consequences regarding privacy, discrimination and commodification of data.
To me, this means that until we can sequence ourselves without fear of misuse of that data, there is more risk in knowing the results than not. So we stay ignorant because the way society is structured (health insurance especially) knowledge is a liability, not an asset.
My pollyanna-ish scientist heart bleeds, because this is going to hold us back from really getting use out of these new tools.

But look how far we've come: in 2000 it was reasonably sophisticated for me to do a cheek swab and PCR on 10 incoming freshman for orientation. (I can't remember what gene we PCRd for, but it was something with polymorphism in copy number... amylase maybe? We didn't even call the kids who were homozygous "homos"... much.) Now they can give away full genome analysis as a doorprize.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:35 AM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


If it weren't seen by some observers as a project fraught with potential invasion of privacy concerns, where would the "controversial implications" be in the first place?

But it was seen as that! Including by the students involved. Some still agreed, and some didn't. That's why they invited people to participate, as opposed to mandating it on threat of explusion.

I'm loving that passive voice you have the luxury of using by virtue of your lack of involvement, but that's exactly what an experiment like this is meant to deny. You're in it, it's your DNA and your privacy, you learn the implications, make the call and live with the consequences. But in a training-wheels setting, where the consequences of guessing wrong aren't as life-destroying as they might be.

I say again, getting people thinking about this stuff early, in a setting where they can decline to participate at no penalty, is unambiguously good.
posted by mhoye at 7:47 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm loving that passive voice you have the luxury of using by virtue of your lack of involvement, but that's exactly what an experiment like this is meant to deny. You're in it, it's your DNA and your privacy, you learn the implications, make the call and live with the consequences.

Okay, fine, you made your point. I wish you'd made it in your original comment instead of getting huffy when I simply wasn't clear about what you were implying in the first place. That's why I asked the question.

And I say again, I still don't think that this project is "unambiguously" good.
posted by blucevalo at 8:02 AM on June 4, 2010


I'm guessing this will be the Posture Photos of our generation.
posted by electroboy at 8:22 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


electroboy: "I'm guessing this will be the Posture Photos of our generation."

Beat me by 20 minutes.

Totalitarianism doesn't repeat, but it rhymes.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2010


I'm with mhoye on this. When the story first broke a couple weeks back, there seemed a lot of hand wringing about privacy and so on. But it seemed fairly clear to me that the whole thing was more an intellectual exercise that both participants and non participants alike could use as fodder for discussion. It simply seemed the most reasonable explanation for why Berkeley would conduct such tests in the way they propose.
posted by 2N2222 at 9:13 AM on June 4, 2010


I think this would work better if they offered a a $10 credit on tuition if the swab is turned in.......
posted by kickingback77 at 9:37 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I totally would be swabbing my dog's mouth.
posted by stormpooper at 10:15 AM on June 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was going to say my cat's ass but that would send this post into a discussion with no looking back.
posted by stormpooper at 10:15 AM on June 4, 2010


Somebody mentioned it above, but blood donations provide much more information than what Berkeley was (likewise, voluntarily) asking for here.

They're testing for reactions to: folic acid, lactic acid, and alcohol. Only participants get the results; all samples are destroyed. Sure, they could be lying and creating an evil DNA database. If you think that, you could decline to provide a sample.

I'm sure Berkeley also required that these students provide: age, name, and their immunization records. What's the diff? Well, at least the DNA information was voluntary. And it won't be shared or sold.

organizations that care a lot about these issues are using this as a way to get public attention

Exactly. A tempest in a teapot.

Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning for the College of Letters and Science's undergraduate division, says the college is “definitely not canceling the program.”

Good for them. Time to grow a pair, weenies.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:38 PM on June 4, 2010


I would think that, innocuous as the tested data sounds, this would be a good way to accidentally reveal what they call a "non-paternity event."
posted by Countess Elena at 6:05 PM on June 4, 2010


Well, you know, sometimes an institution says it's doing one thing, then goes on to do something else.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 6:10 PM on June 4, 2010


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