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UK gov backs Trading Places DNA study

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Government-backed sociologists are aiming to pin economic status, crime and beliefs on our genes in a new £15m survey of 100,000 Britons.

The "UK Household Longitudinal Study" will replace and expand on the DNA analysis-free British Household Panel Survey, which began in 1991.

Each year the Panel Survey has interviewed a growing sample - now 15,000 individuals - in a bid to understand how policy affects people's social and economic status over time.

The expansion of the program to cover "nature versus nurture" questions through genetic and medical testing has raised fears among civil liberties campaigners.

The Observer reports Liberty's barriser Richard Clayton saying: "My principal concern would be how clearly people are informed that their involvement in this study is voluntary and that, even if people do agree to take part, they are absolutely clear about the extraordinary amount of personal information that can be gleaned from such samples."

Professor Nick Buck of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University, which is contracted to run the study, said: "If a certain gene is found in the future to be associated with a certain illness, then being able to go back to previously gathered samples and testing to see how common that gene is will help to plan healthcare."

The contribution the Household Longitudinal Study will make to genetic epidemiology, is questionable however. Like the current Household Panel Survey, it will be run by the government, economists and sociologists and paid for by the Economic and Social Research Council.

In fact, the UK is already home to the largest epidemiological study in the world, which aims to correlate diseases with genetic variation. UK Biobank, backed by the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust, has been collecting towards its target of 500,000 volunteer DNA samples since it launched in 2006.

Biobank volunteers are interviewed, but are asked about their medical history rather than economic and social status and are between the ages of 40 and 69. The Longitudinal Study will sample children as young as 10, The Observer reports.

The UK Household Longitudinal Study homepage is here.

The increase in size and scope of the Household Survey cames as the government considers ditching the 200-year-old census. Treasury officials, together with the Office of National Statistics are beginning talks on replacing the once-a-decade poll with a better snapshot of a highly mobile and fast-changing population. More here.

Many countries have abandoned a traditional census in favour of more sophisticated statistical sampling while the US census is now limited to a few basic questions. In 2001, the anachronisms of the UK's current system were highlighted by the semi-successful net campaign to force the government to ackowledge Jedi as an official religion. ®

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