Published online 16 December 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.681

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Fears mount for forensic research

Scientists express concern as UK government axes its forensic service.

womanWill the closure of the government's Forensic Science Service hamper crime-fighting research?FRANCK CAMHI / Alamy

Forensic research faces a grim future in England and Wales, warn UK forensic scientists. Their gloomy prediction followed hot on the heels of the UK government's decision to wind down the Forensic Science Service (FSS).

The FSS is a government-owned company headquartered in Birmingham that sells its services to customers including police forces in England and Wales. The government has now promised to sell off as much of its operations as possible to the private sector. Although it had previously been suggested that the company would be privatized, it is currently losing £2 million (US$3 million) a month, and a recent National Audit Office report put its value at "a nominal figure of £1,000" in 2008–09 — down from £67 million in 2007–08.

Forensic researchers and practitioners are already expressing concerns about the demise of the FSS. "There is a real dearth of finance available for forensic research in the UK anyway," says Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee. Black notes that academics were able to team up with the FSS when applying for research grants. This week's announcement "leaves us with research partners thin on the ground", she says.

Tough competition

Home Office minister James Brokenshire told Parliament this week that there will be an "orderly wind-down of FSS" that "does not impact on police service customers or the wider criminal justice system". He added that, "our firm ambition is that there will be no continuing state interest in a forensics provider by March 2012".

The UK government's forensic service was turned from an agency into a government-owned company in 2005, part of a trend of adopting a market-based approach to providing government services. Since the 1990s, a growing number of firms have also begun offering forensic services to the English and Welsh police (Scotland has a separate, government-run forensics service). The government says that the FSS has failed to compete for business with these firms, citing higher costs.

James Fraser, director of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Forensic Science in Glasgow, UK, notes that one of the arguments for commercializing the FSS was that it should lead to more research. But this has not happened, he says.

The FSS was "one of the highest publishers of forensic research in Europe, and it now publishes a greatly reduced amount," he says. The Forensic Science Society, a non-profit organization based in Harrogate that counts many FSS employees among its members, said in a statement this week that the FSS has "set standards in the global forensic arena for decades".

"There's a desperate problem about funding for forensic research," adds Fraser, arguing that as the subject does not fit squarely within the remit of any one of the government-funded research councils, it struggles to raise sufficient support. Fraser fears that without the FSS, companies will provide products that offer only incremental improvement on competitors.

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There are also concerns that the reform of forensics in England and Wales could lead to problems with the more practical end of the business: solving crimes.

Black and others suggest that different police forces, with varying levels of funding, may adopt different approaches to their forensic provisions. As a consequence, analyses may be done for crimes in one region that are not conducted for similar crimes in neighbouring regions.

Allan Jamieson, director of Glasgow-based commercial service provider the Forensic Institute, agrees that there is a problem with the lack of forensics research being done but cautions that commercial providers should not be assumed to be inferior to the FSS. "I don't want to be denigrating the FSS," he says. "It's just not the disaster for criminal justice that people think." 

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