• Ruth Morgan

Forensic science or forensic sciences? What’s the big deal?

Forensic science has arguably been having something of an identity crisis, and part of this identity crisis stems from the nomenclature we use to define it. ‘Forensic Science’ and ‘the Forensic Sciences’ are often used interchangeably (and I’ve jotted down my thoughts on ‘forensics’ here if you’re brave enough to go there!). This doesn’t seem like it needs to be or should be a major issue, and certainly not one to get too over excited about (the only difference is an ‘s’ after all), but over the last few years I’ve come to realise that it’s actually a really big deal.

What’s in a name?

It’s a big deal because names matter. The term we use to name our discipline will define what that discipline is and critically what it will become. The impact of a name can have significant ramifications. A name not only defines a discipline, but it shapes the perspectives of both those within and those outside the discipline. A name is integral to the identity of a discipline, and that identity lays the foundation for what a discipline is and what it is considered to be for, and also has the power to set a trajectory for how the discipline evolves and develops. Paulo Freire (1968) observed that naming the world is a model for changing the world. So, the name of a discipline is absolutely core to its credibility, strategic importance and to its future (not least because how strategically important a discipline is considered to be will have a bearing on the type and amounts of resources and funding that are made available for its development).

Forensic sciences?

Forensic science is often considered to be a patchwork of sciences that can be applied to forensic questions. As such it is often referred to as the ‘forensic sciences’ to convey the premise that it is a multidisciplinary field that takes methods and techniques from ‘parent’ or ‘core’ sciences and applies them to ‘forensic’ questions. The term ‘forensic sciences’ communicates a collection of applied ‘core sciences’ and therefore a ‘field of interest’, rather than a clearly defined discipline in its own right. Taking this approach is attractive because it can help us to achieve the answers we need to the ‘what’ and ‘who’ questions in crime detection (‘what is this particle made of?’, ‘who left this DNA profile?’). It also often results in valuable developments in terms of technological advances to help us get those answers more quickly and accurately (just consider the impact of rapid DNA analysis in a custody suite, or real time fingerprint analysis).

However, there are two issues with this approach or ‘model’ of Forensic Science. First technologies are transposed in to a ‘forensic’ problem without sufficient regard for the specific context in forensic reconstruction. A classic example is the development of a great new technique for detecting trace amounts of material to distinguish between materials derived originally from different locations or different people. But the new technique requires a long sample preparation time, and an expensive piece of equipment that is not currently in standard forensic science labs. The cost implication of both of these attributes is likely to make the use of this breakthrough new technique unlikely (at least in the short term, and almost certainly for routine cases). The second issue is that considering Forensic Science as the ‘forensic sciences’ removes the possibility of a coherent and truly interdisciplinary approach for the scientific endeavour of crime reconstruction and evaluation. It presents a very narrow view of Forensic Science, and one that constrains us to a domain with a limited range of activities, and prevents a full consideration and appreciation of the contribution of science to the complex ecosystem of the justice system.

But more than that, it denies what Forensic Science (no ‘s’!) has (in my view) become in more recent years, which is a clearly defined discipline with all the hallmarks of a distinct ‘subject’. It has a broadly understood name (there are job titles and building names that include ‘forensic science’), a large number of university courses, a professional society, as well as a published body of literature with distinct research methods and hypotheses.

Forensic Science

Forensic science has developed into a coherent distinct discipline that has common principles and processes across its different domains (such as DNA, trace evidence, digital evidence). As a single discipline (albeit a truly interdisciplinary one) of Forensic Science,

  • it is possible for it to articulate its distinctive research methods and evidence base that underpin the consistent, reproducible and transparent applications of its principles, processes and activities in practice.

  • it is much more able to address the complex ecosystem within which forensic reconstructions take place and address the whole process from crime scene to court.

  • it is able to articulate the priorities for both technological developments to answer the questions of ‘what’ and ‘who’ as well as the foundational research that will answer the ‘how’ and ‘when’ and also fuel the development of new theory and lay foundations for the advances of the future (for why this is important check out my TED talk).

  • we are better equipped to face new developments with the potential and exponential growth of digital evidence and ‘big data’, because we can situate digital evidence within an overarching common framework with shared principles, processes and activities (for more on this see the really insightful report on this from OSAC), and ensure that in those pioneering activities we can learn from our history and better equip Forensic Science for the future.

So what is in a name? As it turns out, a lot. Considering Forensic Science as a distinct unified discipline will direct the course it takes in the future. As an ‘applied field’ of ‘forensic sciences’ that ‘borrows’ approaches, breakthroughs and technological developments from ‘core sciences’ and applies them to ‘forensic questions’ we are limited to addressing the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ questions we face. Those are of course incredibly important questions to be addressing, but they need to be answered with a full appreciation of the forensic context. For the answers to be relevant in practice, they need to take account of all the complexities of the multi-faceted, multi-stakeholder environment within which forensic science necessarily operates. Forensic science is certainly not less than that.

But it needs to be so much more than that if it is going to offer the full spectrum and capability of science to the holistic and complex ecosystem of the justice system. Forensic Science as a distinct discipline, with its clear overarching and defined principles, processes and activities, and unique research methods (that address both technological advances as well as foundational research to underpin theoretical advances, future technological developments and the application of the science to forensic reconstruction), is the future we need. And all of that is in a name.

This blog discusses some of the ideas published in this recent Forensic Science International Synergy paper:


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