Despite Criticisms, Berkeley Keeps DNA Assignment

May 21, 2010

The University of California, Berkeley's College of Letters and Science is not yielding to calls for it to drop its plan to ask incoming freshmen and transfers to submit a DNA sample to be analyzed for three genes that have to do with the metabolism of food and drinks. A Tuesday Inside Higher Ed news story opened the floodgates of media coverage by other national and local media outlets. Though Berkeley officials have said the assignment is completely optional and anonymous, the project has been a lightning rod for criticism.

Alix Schwartz, the college's director of undergraduate academic planning, said she and her colleagues are "definitely not canceling the program" in response to the backlash. "Even the negative or ill-informed attention" brought to the plan would "add to the dialogue, and dialogue was what we hoped to generate," she said. Some faculty have voiced concerns about genetic testing "but their response is not hysterical, and we are all talking and listening to one another."

In a letter to Berkeley administrators -- and to Mark Yudof, president of the University of California System -- the Council for Responsible Genetics called the project "woefully naïve." While seemingly harmless, the group's president wrote, the test results have "the risk of increasingly being used out of context in ways that are contrary to the interests of the individual, perhaps even discriminatory, and privacy-invasive." The Center for Genetics and Society, a nonprofit based in Berkeley that has no affiliation with the university, has also asked administrators to cancel the program.

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