Techniquest and the Wales Gene Park had previously organised a consultation event to explore young people’s views on the Nuffield Council of Bioethics paper ‘Forensic Uses of Bioinformation’ and had subsequently developed a resource to encourage people to explore some of the social and ethical issues surrounding the National DNA Database (NDNAD).
The partners wanted to explore further the attitudes of young people to the NDNAD, but we wanted to engage those who would not normally be involved in this sort of project, specifically those who may have been arrested and who may have had direct experience of the NDNAD. We were keen for this group to present their views to the Human Genetics Commission as part of their consultation on the NDNAD (see above
Summary of activity:
We ran a mock trial in Cardiff Crown Court, with young people aged 15 – 18 years taking roles as the prosecution, defence and the jury, with the charge: that the government would be guilty of causing an unreasonable threat to the civil liberties of the United Kingdom by the creation of a universal DNA database.
The project had four main phases:
1. Research with the target group comprising10 focus group discussions. The results of this fed into the development of the charge that would be put to the Court
2. Pre-trial workshops. The project team and partners worked with the prosecution and defence teams as they prepared their cases over a period of weeks, and also ran induction events at the Court with the prosecution, defence and jury
3. The trial. The processes conducted in a criminal justice trial were emulated as closely as possible
4. Dissemination. The young people presented their verdict to the Human Genetics Commission at a plenary session as part of the HGC’s consultation ‘The forensic use of DNA and the National DNA Database’.
Following the trial, the young people were asked to complete evaluation forms about their experiences of taking part in the project. All but one of the 37 participants said that they enjoyed taking part in the project. The jury (n=12) were asked whether they felt comfortable to express their opinions during the jury deliberation. Seven said they felt very comfortable, four said that they felt comfortable for most of the time, and one said that s/he did not often feel comfortable.
Overall, participants’ comments were very positive and showed that the majority enjoyed taking part:
“Us youths [sic] should be aware and have more opportunities to participate in such events – as I found it very informative!”
“Good experience and I thurely [sic] enjoyed it.”
“It’s a brilliant idea that makes us, the youth of today, think more about what’s going on in our country!”
Please see Anderson et at, 2010 and Stackhouse et al, 2010 (see last section below) for more details:
Avoiding the “usual suspects”: young people's views of the National DNA Database (2010)
R. Stackhouse; C. Anderson; A. M. Shaw; R. Iredale. New Genetics and Society, 29 (2) pp 149 – 166
The National DNA Database on Trial: engaging young people in South Wales with genetics
C. Anderson; R. Stackhouse; A. M. Shaw; R. Iredale. Public Understanding of Science (accepted for publication, May 2010)
What went well:
This project demonstrated that the mock trial format can be used to facilitate young people’s understanding of complex, contentious genetic topics, and can encourage them to undertake comprehensive research about wider issues in the forensic use of genetic information in criminal justice. It enabled young people to make decisions about applications of DNA technology after careful consideration of associated ethical, social, legal and economic issues and for them to discuss their conclusions with policy makers.
What was learned:
We were disappointed not to engage as fully with young offenders as we had originally proposed; although they took part in the original research, they did not get involved in the trial. The young offenders found it difficult to commit to the project because of the time required, which is similar to those views reported from participants in other deliberative democracy models. By reducing this commitment by, for example, fitting in with the young offenders’ current activities or running fewer preparatory sessions, it is possible that their involvement could have been increased.
Some members of our advisory board believed, from their experience, that thanking the young offenders for their time in the project with an event or activity which they would not normally experience (e.g. go-karting, a ride in a limousine, a buffet meal at a hotel) may have been appreciated more than High Street vouchers.
In addition, other methods for collecting information for their evidence, such as excursions to conduct personal interviews with experts, could have increased the project’s appeal. These changes may also have suited some of the young people from youth centres and schools who expressed an interest, but did not commit to the project.
These alterations could produce a format which might appeal to those who did not continue with the project, but remain untested. However, the format used in this project does appeal to some young people as all of the participants in the trial took part voluntarily and almost half of these participants said they would have taken part without remuneration.
Top tips and advice for others
1. Work closely with people with experience of working with the young people you are targeting (school teachers, youth offending teams, youth centre workers)
2. Choose a subject that personally affects individuals in the target group so that it has relevance
3. Carry out research with the target group to get preliminary data about issues that are relevant to the group
4. Be prepared to change your project if it isn’t working as planned, but work closely with your advisory group (which, in our case, consisted of those with expertise in NDNAD, youth work, law, public engagement and social sciences, as well as representation from the Welsh Assembly Government and HGC) and funders (in our case, the Wellcome Trust) to take into account the views of all stakeholders
5. Where possible, provide opportunities to input into current consultations, so that participants can see that their views are important to the democratic process
6. Provide opportunities for the young people (not the project team!) to present their views to decision makers (in our project they personally presented to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Human Genetics Commission)