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Forensic Science Service: hero or villain?

Britain’s plans to close its respected Forensic Science Service could devastate research in the field, a parliamentary inquiry has been told. But the FSS has also been criticised by those giving evidence for keeping its own research secret.

The UK’s coalition government announced plans last year to wind up the Forensic Science Service, which was turned into a commercial company in 2005. This triggered warnings that the move could be a body blow to UK researchers (see: Fears mount for forensic research).

Many of the leading lights in the field have reiterated those warnings in written evidence to a select committee inquiry on the closure.

“If the proposed closure of the Forensic Science Service (FSS) goes ahead it will severely damage the research and development of scientific methods for the successful investigation of crime and the logical evaluation and interpretation of evidence,” warns the Statistics and Law working group of the Royal Statistical Society in its evidence.

The emergence of new ideas in forensics will be “severely curtailed” by the loss of the FSS, say many of those giving evidence. The developer of DNA forensics, Alec Jeffreys, says that the loss of expertise from its closure and the loss of a focal point for UK forensic science could delay the uptake of new techniques from academia by front-line forensics. It is, he says, “potentially disastrous”.

Not everyone agrees on the eminent reputation of the FSS though.

Director of the Forensic Institute, Allan Jamieson, says, “In our experience, the recent much-lauded FSS Ltd research – for example, on Low Copy Number or LCN DNA profiling – has not been subject to proper scientific scrutiny. This scrutiny is made even more difficult by the resistance of the FSS Ltd to disclose data and, even when disclosure is forced by the Courts, the insistence that the data cannot be disclosed to the scientific community.”

Data disclosure could be a fraught issue in future. In his evidence – and in conversation with the BBC – Peter Gill of the University of Oslo says that courts have and will reject evidence if companies try to keep their proprietary methods secret.

He notes a recent case where the judge criticized the FSS for using a commercially confidential database that was not available for peer review or to other scientists. A retrial was ordered in that case.

“Commercialisation does not promote exchange of data, collaboration and convergence,” he writes. “Neither does it promote openness.”

Exhibits 1 through 3: inquiry evidence in quotes

“Research and development cost money, and not all techniques and processes that are looked into will yield financially viable products for a private firm. Without any established research, there is unlikely to be any future development of forensic science, except for any that has currently been completed by the Forensic Science Service but is not yet available to any of the privately owned providers.”

Current FSS scientist Colin Osmond.

“If the FSS is wound down, it is not clear who will fill the R&D vacuum. R&D, which is an extremely expensive long-term function, cannot be allowed to stagnate. Whilst other companies clearly have a R&D role, the impact of the loss of the FSS research function should not be underestimated.”

The Criminal Cases Review Commission, established by the government to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice.

“The proposed closure of the Forensic Science Service is ill-thought out, premature and at this stage likely to undermine the international status and reputation of what has been achieved in this field over many years.”

Independent forensic scientist Ronald Denney.


  1. Report this comment

    The Doc said:

    Can somebody put forward any recent published examples of a significant new technique / test / tool that the FSS R&D dept has come with? It seems to me that there is much good and significant R&D going on world wide in other labs / universities so why is it assumed that the FSS is such a significant source of new ideas in the Forensics world? Are we just grasping for straws in the argument against closure?

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