N. C. Attorney General Roy Cooper asked more than 250 scientists and students gathered at a genomics research conference organized by Western Carolina University to join him in his effort to expand the state’s DNA database and increase the number of genetic analysts in the State Bureau of Investigation.

“Thanks to the work you have already done, we in law enforcement have the use of tools of technology to fight crime. We have DNA technology to assist us with the criminal justice system and with homeland security. This is a science that has made all of our lives safer,” Cooper said Thursday, April 3. “DNA evidence is rock solid evidence that can take criminals off the street and set innocent people free. It’s as simple as that.”

But North Carolina’s criminal justice system is failing to keep pace with the expanding technology, he said, as thousands of rape kits containing valuable DNA evidence are sitting untested on the shelves of local police departments because there are not enough forensic scientists to analyze the samples.

“That is unacceptable with the technology we have today. We know we can do better,” he said. “What can you do? You can step out of your roles as students and scientists and become advocates to help us press the N. C. General Assembly and the U. S. Congress to step up to the plate on this issue.”

Cooper, delivering the keynote address at the conference at the Asheville Civic Center, also reminded participants that their work has implications far beyond hard science. Among the issues discussed throughout the day were privacy and confidentiality concerns, genetic engineering and “designer babies,” property rights, stem cell research policies, health insurance regulations and the ethics of cloning.

“We need you to help us with the ethical dilemmas as well,” Cooper said. “We need your help to make certain, as we move forward with this technology that is already available, that we put safeguards in place to be sure DNA samples are not misused.”

Western’s Office of Research and Graduate Studies organized the conference, funded by a grant from The University of North Carolina Office of the President, to encourage discussion of legal, ethical and social questions arising in the wake of the rapid pace of scientific advances. “This conference is critical because you are tracking issues and making decisions affecting the human race,” Cooper said. “You are working on critical issues. Where will this research take us next? What diseases will be cured next? What impact will this research have on the economy? How do we tackle the privacy and confidentiality concerns that can come with such great technological knowledge?”

Some of the nation’s top researchers in the fields of genomics and biotechnology – including scientists from Western Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, California State University, Oregon State University, University of British Columbia and the Hastings Center – discussed those issues throughout the daylong conference. Titled “Genomic Research: The Science, the Law, Ethical and Social Implications,” the event also attracted participants from the fields of health sciences, economic development, law enforcement, business and industry, nonprofit organizations and government.

LeVon Wilson, professor of Business Administration and Law at Western, said science has always developed at a faster pace than society’s ability to deal with the sociological, legal and ethical implications of new discoveries. That is especially true during this time of rapid technological advancement, Wilson said.

“There is serious scientific controversy over the accuracy of DNA testing, and critics say there was a rush to use DNA technology in criminal proceedings,” he said. “The controversy is as much a disagreement over law as it is over science.”

Wes Bonds, assistant Chemistry professor who is leading WCU’s biotechnology studies, urged caution in the development of a DNA database that could be accessed by law enforcement officials. “I am concerned about the security of a DNA database,” said Bonds. “It could reveal detailed information about not just the medical history of the accused, but also the accused’s entire family.”