After the inquiry, where to for forensic science research? Part I
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee took a distinctive approach in their inquiry into Forensic Science by looking at the whole system. As a result, this is the first report to take a holistic view of research and its role in forensic science. Serious concerns were heard about the state of research, and the inquiry identified some really serious challenges which led to their recommendation for urgent reform through the creation of a National Institute for Forensic Science.
What’s the root of the challenge? The gaps that need answers
But how have we got here? It’s not that long ago that forensic science in the UK was considered to be a leader on the global stage. The inquiry’s broad approach covered the three core challenges in forensic science research:
the scientific validity of existing methods and the attribution of source(s);
the need to understand how forensic materials are generated, transferred and persist (questions around ‘how’ and ‘when’ did the material get to where we found it), and
the importance of incorporating a consideration of human judgement and decision making (covering biases and the use of statistics). For more on these challenges see here.
By taking this overview, the inquiry highlighted the gaps that exist in our current evidence base, and their implications for forensic science and the justice system going forwards.
The fact that these gaps currently exist can seem pretty surprising – how can we have possibly got to today without knowing how trace amounts of DNA can transfer onto objects and other people? How is it that we don’t fully understand all the factors that can impact critical judgements that are being made that influence what we understand the evidence to mean in a specific case?
One of the reasons we’re in this situation is that forensic science research hasn’t been funded at the level needed to make sure that we have these answers. Forensic science is something of an orphan discipline, it is not included in the remit of any of the major research councils. In the last ten years less than 0.1% of the research budget has been allocated to forensic science research, and the research that has been funded has been predominantly focussed upon developing technological solutions to current operational needs. There have been some great breakthroughs with this funding and the value of having better equipped professionals investigating crime is clear. But, the lack of investment is having an impact, and the gaps we have are broad, and can’t just be fixed with technology. So there’s no doubt there needs to be a serious rethink about resourcing forensic science. But I don’t think the solution is just about making (more) funding available, although it’s certainly not less than that.
Where can we go from here? Strategy for culture?
We need to have a strategy. And that strategy needs to incorporate a holistic view of forensic science across the whole system. We certainly need to be funding the technological advancements that address the operational needs that exist, and to be making sure that we’re at the forefront of harnessing the capabilities of new and emerging technologies. But we also need to be funding the foundational research that is needed to underpin every part of the forensic science system (crime scene to court).
This is a really important distinction and to truly address the three core challenges (see above) we need to have both. We need to be developing our capabilities when it comes to identifying and detecting salient science evidence (addressing the source of material or who the material came from). And at the same time we also need to be making sure that we have a sufficient evidence base to understand what a piece of evidence means (by understanding the activities of the forensic materials that we can identify and collect, and understanding how human decisions have been made in the reconstruction approach). On top of this we need to be not only considering the short term needs, but also preparing and laying the groundwork for medium and longer term needs which will include horizon scanning for the future challenges that are around the corner, and developing approaches to equip us to handle them. This is so very important if we are to have a forensic science discipline that is robust, grounded in strong science, and world leading in innovation and discovery.
The recommendation of the inquiry was to establish a National Institute of Forensic Science. This was predicated on this need to ensure that both technological and foundational research is valued and carried out. This kind of body would be able to look at the short, medium and long term, and offer strategic leadership for ensuring that forensic science has strong scientific foundations, and be in a position to develop as the challenges it faces change and grow. For that to be achieved, we need to be willing as a research community (and enabled) to take risks, and (here’s the scary bit) we need to be willing (and enabled) to fail so that we can test assumptions, find flaws and develop solutions. This is counter cultural in many fields of research (although there are some incredible exceptions), but risk and failure are the building blocks of a culture that produces innovation and breakthroughs.
For the Institute to be able to offer this strategic leadership and create this type of thriving research environment that fosters innovation and progress, it will clearly need to have representation from across the whole forensic science system. It will also need to be willing to break new ground, to reimagine the future of forensic science, and be willing to foster the dialogue and create the environment in the UK where innovative, creative, collaborative world class research can take place. It’s been said that the key to the future is being able to imagine it. But we also need the infrastructures in place to create an environment that allows that future to come to pass. The National Institute could help us make our imagining a reality.