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Forensics: stronger scientific scrutiny needed in Britain

I congratulate Nature for highlighting problems that exist in forensic science, and in low-copy-number DNA profiling in particular (Nature 464, 325 and 347–348; 2010).

Any move intended to improve matters must, in the first instance, be made within the scientific community. As the lord chief justice William Murray told an English court in 1782: “In matters of science, the reasoning of men of science can only be answered by men of science.”

The United Kingdom and other jurisdictions must recognize the defects identified by the US National Academies of Science report 'Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward' (2009) and others. They must involve the wider scientific community in the validation of forensic techniques, and in scrutinizing the use of those techniques in forensic investigations.

Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck correctly suggest (Nature 464, 351; 2010) that, although an accreditation and certification process may be part of the solution to the many underlying problems in forensic practice, this is not a panacea. It is essential for any proposed scheme that the standards applied are based on sound science.

It is time for all jurisdictions to adopt a common approach, using the proposed US model of a truly independent and scientifically sound national institute. This has not so far been achieved —neither is it likely to be — by what the National Academies of Science describe as “an extremely complex and decentralized system, with various players, jurisdictions, demands, and limitations”. A network of such national institutes would enable the development of robust international standards that could then be tailored to local practice.

The UK response to the documented and public failures in forensic science has been to appoint an independent regulator, Andrew Rennison. The regulator, an ex-policeman funded by the Home Office, chairs an advisory council whose scientific input comes from within the forensic community and from the suppliers of services to the police. The regulator-commissioned review concluded that the low-template DNA techniques were fit for purpose (see

The introspective and isolated position of forensic science within the United Kingdom is further shown by its removal from the Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Sector Skills Council. Forensic science has been placed, instead, within the Skills for Justice Sector Skills Council, where it is the only 'scientific' component — thereby removing an opportunity for external scientific scrutiny.

I look forward to the development of a satisfactory model in the United Kingdom. In the short term, a fresh, deeper and wider look at the use of low-template DNA techniques, particularly in casework, is overdue.

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See also Forensics: experts disagree on statistics from DNA trawls.

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Jamieson, A. Forensics: stronger scientific scrutiny needed in Britain. Nature 464, 1266 (2010).

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