Does the Forensic Science Service closure bring opportunity for stronger research in the field?

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

With discontent still surrounding the imminent transfer of all the Forensic Science Service’s (FSS) work to private providers and the police, one potential (emphasis on potential) silver lining is the extra attention research has been given in the inquiry.

The FSS previously spent £3-4 million per year on research and development, a significant hole which now needs to be filled for the sake of our justice system and competetiveness in this area. Furthermore, commercial forensic service providers have less incentive than the publicly funded FSS to conduct original research, particularly at a time when they need to rapidly expand their scientific services to shoulder the extra work they must now take on. To counter this, there are now growing calls for forensic science research to be incentivised within the public funding framework; by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

In December, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held an evidence session at which they questioned Professor Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Home Office, on this issue. Professor Silverman spoke positively and said that he was undertaking discussions with the three aforementioned funders. With the FSS gone, the Home Office may no longer be seen as the ‘home’ of forensic science research, creating an onus on these three, who receive their funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. And, as Professor Jim Fraser, Director of the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, said in his submission to the original inquiry: “The research councils talk a great deal about the ‘impact of research’. What could be more impactive than criminal justice?”

Whilst the Research Councils will not make forensic science an immediate ‘strategic priority’, Professor Silverman was enthusiastic that they are taking steps to stress the importance of research in this area. Continued political pressure will help them “rise to the challenge” (Silverman) and encourage innovative research in universities, for which they can be rewarded through the Research Excellence Framework.

Whilst it would be foolish to expect all the FSS’ research and development practises to be continued, this may well provide an opportunity for new, innovative and collaborative research to fill this gap.

Also attending the Science and Technology Committee evidence session were James Brokenshire MP (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Prevention) and Andrew Rennison (Forensic Science Regulator). Other items under discussion included the FSS archive and the creation of a new strategic group, which is expected to meet for the first time in April. An uncorrected transcript can be found here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmsctech/uc1698-i/uc169801.htm

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