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Doctor of Science
honoris causa

Pro-Chancellor, Chairman of the Council, Vice-Chancellor, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

On behalf of myself and my fellow honorary graduands, I would like to thank you all for the great honour that you do us today, and for this wonderful recognition of our work from such a distinguished University. Speaking personally, I am delighted to accept this honorary degree not so much for myself but for all my colleagues who helped turn a crazy dream of DNA-based identification into a technology that has now spread to every corner of the world and directly touched the lives of tens of millions of people.

Many people believe that I deliberately set out on this DNA identification quest. Nothing could be further from the truth. My research in the early 1980s was entirely curiosity-driven, asking basic questions about the nature of DNA variation and with the vague expectation that it might deliver something of practical use in medicine. It was purely by chance that we stumbled upon a method for detecting highly variable regions of DNA and generating what soon became known as DNA fingerprints, and it was only after we had our first DNA fingerprint that the penny dropped - we had by chance stumbled upon an entirely new approach to biological identification

The subsequent history of DNA fingerprinting has been amazing. Within six months of the discovery, we had taken on the first real-life case, an immigration dispute where we managed to save a boy from deportation by proving the authenticity of his family relationships. A few months later came our first paternity dispute, followed by the first criminal investigation that led to the entrapment of a criminal who is now serving life sentences for the rape and murder of two young schoolgirls.

The subsequent spread and impact of DNA identification has been extraordinary. To give you just a few examples - the successful identification of the remains of Tsar Nicholas, the Tsarina and their children nearly 80 years after their murder by the Bolsheviks; the investigation of what exactly had been going on in the Oval Office between the President and Monica Lewinsky; the proof that it was indeed Osama Bin Laden who had been apprehended by American Special Forces in Pakistan; and the verification that the remains of our King Richard III really had been found in, of all places, a car park in my own city of Leicester.

The last 18 years have also seen the development of National DNA Databases, in which DNA profiles from convicted people are stored to help identification in subsequent criminal investigations. Virtually every major country now has its own DNA database, and Hong Kong is no exception. Following a Bill introduced in 2000, Hong Kong established a DNA database of persons convicted of a serious arrestable offence, as well as DNA profiles from ongoing unsolved casework. To give you some idea of the scale of impact, last year alone saw some 4,000 criminal cases investigated here by DNA. However, this pales into insignificance compared with the UK, where some 6 million people are now on the database, representing over 10% of the entire population - a sorry reflection both of the state of British society and of successive Governments' determination to fill up the database by any means possible, including the illegal retention of innocent people.

For me, this has been an exhilarating if occasionally perplexing journey from an academic lab into the world of the police, the law, the courts, politics, human rights and the like. And remember, this was all a glorious accident - we never set out to accomplish any of these goals, but were simply having fun at the lab bench following our noses and seeing where it might lead. The message of course is clear - while applied research is important, you must also support curiosity-driven blue-skies research with no obvious application or otherwise run the risk of losing out on major transformative discoveries, which, by their very nature, are totally unpredictable and therefore all the more exciting.

I would also like to say a few words about the other honorary graduands. Mr Patrick Yu, who unfortunately is not able to join us today, is a lawyer of the highest distinction, and I am delighted to say that he and I were educated at the same fine establishment, namely Merton College, Oxford. I do hope that Mr Yu has found our work on DNA of some interest. Prof Mai Yiu Wing's work on materials science is outstanding, and it may be of some interest that DNA has now entered even this field, particularly as a material for constructing elaborate nano-structures and nano-devices. Prof Fan Jinshi's archaeological work is fascinating, and needless to say, DNA now plays an integral part in this field in terms of analysing ancient remains. Prof Wang Shenghong has made major contributions to electronics, including radio telescopes, which I hope will fulfill one of my great dreams, namely the eventual discovery of life beyond Earth. And finally, congratulations to Mr Rocco Yim, whose architectural masterpieces have done so much to enrich the landscape of Hong Kong and beyond. I am sure that all of the honorary graduands would like to join me in expressing their sincerest thanks for the great honour that you have bestowed upon us all today.

Thank you.


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