It’s generally accepted that forensic science is by definition interdisciplinary as it sits at a nexus of multiple disciplines and intersects a number of key stakeholders (such as investigators, lawyers, policy makers, and scientists). But that means that the consideration of what forensic science ‘is’ and what it is ‘for’ is a foundational issue that has ramifications across the whole ecosystem of forensic science. Taking a holistic view of forensic science as a coherent and interdisciplinary discipline is vital for a healthy and vibrant forensic science that can (1) meet the needs of each intersecting domain, (2) underpin forensic science that is robust and sustainable, and (3) ensure its development in the short, medium and long term, to deliver the innovation that is needed to address the challenges of the future.
It is clear that forensic science has suffered from a scarcity of resources. This is due, in part, to the disparate identity of forensic science to date, which has led to a discipline without a clearly articulated ‘home’, and the resultant lack of strategic oversight and accountability for the development and resourcing of the discipline.
We studied the data that was presented to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee in 2018 to assess just what has been going on in the UK with the funding for the science research that underpins forensic science (as a holistic endeavour to support the whole system from crime scene to court). In summary we found that:
• The amount of funding for specific and dedicated forensic science research is lower than has been previously stated, with only 69 projects out of a total of 150 and 46% of the total budget 2009-2018. This represents £17.2m which is less than 0.03% of the total stated UKRI budget over this time period of £6bn. Whilst the 53 projects with explicit or implicit potential applications to forensic science may well offer value to addressing certain challenges in forensic science, they have been undertaken within other disciplinary frameworks and therefore, may not always have produced outcomes that are implementable within the forensic science system.
• The amount of funding for (broadly defined) forensic science research has seen a decrease since 2015 (when £13.3 million was awarded) to £11.2 million in 2016, £5.5 million in 2017 and £1.1 million in 2018.
• The focus of funded research has predominantly been on technological developments (such as new detection tools) (91 projects, worth £37.2 million), with much less funding being allocated to foundational research (such as getting answers to how a trace transfers and when) (27 projects, worth £10.76 million).
• In more recent years there has been a modest increase in funding for novel technologies and evidence types (such as cybercrime and digital evidence (33 projects, worth £14.4 million)) and very small proportions of the budget have been allocated to more traditional evidence types such as fingerprints (2 projects, worth £0.7 million) and DNA and genetics (13 projects, equivalent to £2.9 million).
• There is potential for considering how research in forensic science can be addressing root causes rather than the symptoms of the current crisis, by reducing the amount of resource going towards ‘palliative’ approaches, and increasing resources for curative and preventative approaches that in synergy have great potential to contribute to the reforms that have been called for.
In order to address the challenges that have been articulated in many policy reports, it is clear that funding is going to be a critical factor looking forward. However, it is not a case of simply increasing a budget (although it is clear an increased budget is needed). For forensic science to develop in a sustainable way, to ensure validity and efficacy, and safeguard robust science to underpin practice across the whole system, there needs to be a broad acceptance of forensic science as a coherent discipline. That means we need to consider the identity of forensic science, the type of research and development that is supported and valued, and how we can apply systems thinking.
If we can get to a point where the identity of forensic science is clear and unified we will be in a position (if we can ensure adequate resources), to make sure that forensic science continues to develop from its core foundation of distinct research methods, core principles and theories that underpin questions of source and identity as well as evaluative interpretation. It will facilitate the coherent and synergetic approach to physical and digital evidence and incorporate an understanding of the human actors within the entire forensic science endeavour from crime scene to court.
R&D that grows our technological capabilities and foundational research base
I have argued in a number of places that forensic science research and development needs to be addressing both new technological capabilities and foundational research. We need to value both types of research activity as integral parts to a healthy forensic science ecosystem. But we are a long way off this at the moment.
Part of the reason for this is down to what we value in forensic science, and how that value is articulated and evaluated. At the moment, due to the disparate identity of forensic science, the value of forensic science is easier to articulate over short time frames and in situations where the value is not dispersed across the system (such as research developing technological solutions to investigative challenges such as detecting traces, or individuals). Possibly as a result of this our study showed that there is a dearth of research addressing foundational issues and developing theory to support future innovation that provides value over longer time periods and across different domains (investigation and the courts).
We need to work out how to evaluate foundational research in a way that has traction with funders and stakeholders to ensure that forensic science research offers both the technological and foundational developments it needs to thrive and contribute the best science to the justice system.
A systems thinking approach
There will also need to be changes in our approach to forensic science to address the root causes of the challenges that have been identified within forensic science over the last 10 years and offer reform to the current status quo. The recommendations made by the House of Lords take this systems approach in the recommendations that they make in terms of addressing strategic oversight and accountability for forensic science, regulation of the market, and establishing a national institute for forensic science that will enable funding streams to address the full spectrum of forensic science research needed. This ‘whole system’ approach stemmed from the ethos of the inquiry to identify the root causes of the forensic science crisis and offer a meaningful ‘blueprint for change’.
From a research point of view, the findings from our study of the funding data indicate that while more funding is certainly needed, a strategic approach must be developed to direct where additional funding is focussed. Having a coherent understanding of the identity of forensic science will increase the likelihood that funds are deployed in a way that addresses the root causes of the current challenges and anticipates the future needs of the whole system.
So what does forensic science really need? A systems thinking approach will take us a long way forward. Forensic science is a fragmented system and addressing the root causes of challenges promises to be a much more effective way to ensure the sustainability and relevance of forensic science going forward. Focussing in just one place whether that is how science is used in investigations, or how the market works, or how research is funded will offer small steps, but they need to be done in concert to have a lasting legacy of a coherent and functioning forensic science that contributes the best science to the pursuit of justice.
For the full data see our paper in Forensic Science International Synergy available here