This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer
Science and Technology Committee to keep close eye on FSS wind-down
I’ve been reading through the Government’s response to July’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report into the wind-down of the Forensic Science Service (FSS), which was published yesterday. On balance it is quite dismissive of the report, which strongly criticised the decision, with a couple of caveats (see the end of this post).
In short, it is clear that the commercial side of the decision remains at the forefront of the issue for those wielding the power. As Andrew Miller MP, chair of the committee, said yesterday: “It is disappointing that the Home Office has failed to recognise that the decision to close the FSS should not have been taken purely on commercial and legal grounds, but also on scientific grounds.” The Government states in its response that is not the role of the Forensic Science Regulator (FSR) or Home Office Chief Scientific Advisor (CSA, Professor Bernard Silverman) to give legal or commercial advice, and they reject criticism of Silverman’s role. But what about their scientific expertise? And even if it had been appropriate to announce a closure on these grounds alone, surely their expert opinions would have been useful?
Subsequent comments about the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (TUPE), with regards to the retention of forensic scientists within the profession and the UK – “We fully expect that the obligations arising from [TUPE Regulations] will be met… Ultimately police authorities hold these contracts” – bring to mind (perhaps unfairly) a quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger when asked about the environment early on in his governance of California. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. In the report, the Government do promise to report back to the Science and Technology Committee on the impacts of the closure on FSS staff next June. The time for judgement will be then.
The final point I find particularly interesting is that in their report, the Science and Technology Committee highlighted that there may be a problem with the Home Office’s use of scientific evidence in policy making. In their response, the Government denies this, citing positive messages in the Government Office for Science- Science Review of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, from 2007. But taking a closer look at this document, it also states several reservations regarding the Home Office, including that the CSA has no seat on the management board. As the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) recently pointed out (although the Home Office does fairly well in CaSE’s brief snapshot), this is still the case.
It isn’t all bad news. The response is positive in terms of ensuring the retention and continued operation of the FSS archive system (although the government has not revealed its long-term solution, noting that options are under consideration), and that forensic research and development should be established as a strategic research priority for the Research Councils. For the many other implications, we’ll have to see how private forensic service providers and newly (or soon to be) accredited police forensic departments adapt when the dust fully settles. Miller isn’t convinced that things wont go awry, stating: “I will be asking the committee to keep a close eye on the transition as I still fear that the forensic science research base and criminal justice system could be jeopardised if the Minister’s optimism is ill founded.” These are still worrying and uncertain times.