Science & Environment

University links 'vital to forensic research'

Bullets dusted for fingerprints
The FSS has been a major contributor to research and development in forensic science

Universities can help form the core of a research and development hub for forensic science in the UK, a Home Office review has suggested.

The report recommended improved links between those engaged in forensic research and those who used it.

The review followed the government's decision to wind down the Forensic Science Service, which analyses crime scene evidence in England and Wales.

But one expert said devolving research to universities would not work.

The review also encompasses the roles played in research by government labs and private forensic providers.

The Silverman Review came to light last week, on the same day that MPs published the findings of an inquiry that criticised the government's plans for shutting down the Forensic Science Service, or FSS. The report has now become available on the internet.

The FSS had an international reputation for innovation in forensic science, and many experts have voiced dismay over the likely effect of the closure on UK R&D. Sir Alec Jeffreys, who helped pioneer the technique of genetic fingerprinting, called the move "potentially disastrous".

In the review, its author Dr Bernard Silverman, who is chief scientific adviser to the Home Office, wrote: "With better co-ordination and linkages, paying attention not only to making new developments but also to their validation and communication, the energy and commitment in the area has the potential to drive innovation more effectively."

It added: "It is not appropriate or even possible to take a top-down approach to this essential communication aspect of research and development; rather it is incumbent upon all involved to be particularly aware of this need and to build on the formal and informal networks that already exist."

Funding sources

The review outlines a range of university research areas relevant to forensic science, but notes that "the difficulty, or perceived difficulty" of obtaining funding for forensic research was a recurrent theme in submissions to the review from academic institutions.

It recommends that consideration be given to making forensic science a strategic research priority for the research councils, which fund academic research in the UK. It added: "In the first instance, the Home Office should facilitate contacts between Research Councils UK and academics, industry and end users to explore this possibility in detail."

The review says that one of the major means for funding research in universities - the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) - contains provisions to encourage research of "social, economic or cultural impact or benefit", which could include forensic research.

Dr Silverman also points out that the existing framework agreement used by police to procure forensic services sets out a requirement for private providers to carry out R&D.

But last week, an inquiry carried out by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee described UK forensic R&D as "not healthy" and called for a new national research budget for forensic science.

It said the Home Office had not consulted Dr Silverman over the decision and that the government had not considered enough evidence before coming to its conclusion. The committee added that the chief scientific adviser's satisfaction at his exclusion from the decision-making process was "unacceptable".

Speaking to BBC News last week, forensic scientist Professor Peter Gill, at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Oslo, warned that simply devolving the responsibility for research to universities was unlikely to work.

He said: "To be useful [as a forensic researcher] you need to be part of a caseworking laboratory because the two feed off each other. You develop the method and then there is a way to implement them into casework, which is a joint collaboration between caseworkers and researchers.

"If you separate the research out it would not work properly. You have to have the right environment."

Paul.Rincon-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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