Forensic Science Research – What Research?

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On Monday I travelled down to London for the Forensic Science Society’s ‘Education and Industry Forum’ at the Home Office. I wanted to find out what the current state of play was and who is doing what? And crucially how do I get my hands on the money?

The meeting was aimed at academic institutions and forensic science service providers and was hosted by the Forensic Science Society (FSSoc).  Representatives of the Police, Home Office and Research Councils presented their current thoughts and priorities for forensic science research.  Some of these are summarised below.


Police priorities

They really want the turn around times from crime scene sampling to reporting to be cut.  They also want to control more of the science, taking things in house (thereby controlling the costs).  Many of the ideas presented would make good studies for management students rather than forensic scientists (process design, consistency of training etc).  Police are keen to help people do the research (trying to enable research access to case samples for instance).


Academic Researchers

‘Big picture research’.  Academics produce work with the tools at their disposal, not necessarily solving current issues. Academics can produce some nice work but aren’t able to get this stage required by legal systems.  Academics are also held to the values of their institutions, requiring traditional academic outputs in high impact journals on the whole.


Service Providers

Produce service development work rather than the ‘blue sky’ thinking of some academics.  Due to the validation requirements required for use in legal cases it is often difficult to rely on University research (such as undergrad projects).

Research commissioned by providers has to pass the business need test and also provide return on investment. One good example is that one provider is not doing next generation DNA research (phenotyping – aiming to give investigators characteristics of the possible offender).  Why?  Perhaps because of ethical issues, or perhaps because it still requires too much research before it is ready for the legal system.


Research councils

‘Are keen to fund forensic research’, but generally don’t.  They say that forensic scientists are bad at writing grant proposals but on the flip side produce good ideas.  But they say they judge proposals on science not on quality of writing, so more should be being funded?  They also aren’t going to fund a background population study or such issues.  The trend is for funding bigger projects for a longer time.  This means more money is focussed at fewer people.  This funding will still likely be targeted at early stage research not commercialisation of work.


So a summary of this may be ‘you can’t get funding to help solve a current problem, you must come up with a new problem to solve’.


So what is being done?

There were some positive signs.  The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) presented their Forensic Science Special Interest Group.  The TSB have put large amounts of time and money into getting projects from the conceptual stage through to market so this is a very good thing:

The FoSci SIG is funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and will run a programme of activities to build a forensic science community and enable closer networking and better communication between forensic science end users, suppliers of products and services, academics and other researchers, and policy makers, for improved R&D.


There were a few items of agreement in discussion.  The FSSoc has proposed some workshops: developing proposals; how to write for research councils; and to understand the ‘thinking of research councils’.  That’s a good start.  They will also hold a biannual R and D conference, starting in 2013.

There was also a very good talk on building European networks, with some success (but it was still unclear whether this had generated any money/research output).


What more can be done?

Some ideas for the FSSoc:

How about the FSSoc mandate that all of their accredited University’s invest in research in some way?

Or maybe introduce a research module in their accreditation?

Link each accredited University with a commercial partner, enabling a two way exchange of ideas and projects.


The service providers need to get more involved (there was a very low turnout). They are the ones who will often benefit from advances in the science.  Perhaps through linking the Association of Forensic Science Providers with this FSSoc meeting?


I will put it out there that I am happy to try and help with small projects from forensic companies.  We can easily work together on 6 week projects for undergrad students or slightly longer for MSc. Proof of concept studies would be particularly suitable.  A small offer but anyone want to take it up?


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.