MPs attack expert's bias

March 24, 2006

MPs attacked the Government this week for appointing the Cambridge University professor who invented iris-scanning technology to the independent scientific group advising the Home Office on ID cards.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee questioned Home Office experts about the evidence behind its controversial ID card programme on Wednesday. Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chair of the committee, asked whether the biometrics assurance group could really be described as independent when it had as a member John Daugman, the Cambridge academic who developed and patented iris-recognition technology.

He said: "John Daugman has got the worldwide rights to iris scanning."

Later Mr Willis added: "He spends all his time rubbishing anyone who questions iris-recognition technology."

But Katherine Courtney, director of the Home Office ID card programme, said: "The chief scientific adviser at the OST (Office of Science and Technology) was involved in identifying appropriate members for his group.

The members of the group are all academics who fiercely protect their independence."

Before the meeting Mr Willis told The Times Higher that he was angry that Professor Daugman had submitted "a major piece" of written evidence to the committee without declaring his commercial interest.

He said: "It was unfortunate that we had to have his commercial interest revealed to us by leading players in the iris-recognition technology in the US when we visited recently."

He added: "There is no official requirement to declare. But in future when the request for evidence goes out, there will need to be a clear notice saying anything that might prejudice your evidence must be declared."

In his submission to the committee, Professor Daugman strongly criticised a report by the London School of Economics that questioned the Government's policy on ID cards. Simon Davies, who co-wrote the report and has faced a barrage of criticism from the Government, said: "This is a longstanding row. I have spoken at and attended conferences where Daugman has stood and attacked me."

He added: "I believe it is inappropriate to stand as an independent expert when there is a financial interest at stake. I declare my interest in civil rights -that declaration absolutely saturates my work."

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and a member of the committee, said: "Professor Daugman makes what I think are important and potentially reasonable criticism of some of the bioscientific assertions in the LSE report."

But he called for Parliamentary committees to do more to encourage witnesses to declare any potential conflicts of interest.

Professor Daugman was away on holiday this week and unable to comment.

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