Forensic science dissected

1st March 2013 at 00:00
This particular F-word may draw pupils to science, but experts say handle it with care. Douglas Blane reports

Forensic science fascinates people, particularly as portrayed in popular programmes such as CSI. So it seems a great way to turn school pupils on to subjects that can struggle to retain their interest in secondary school. But there are dangers to this approach, says the University of Dundee's Professor Sue Black (pictured right).

"Universities are businesses. Many of them noticed in the 1990s that there was an appetite among school-leavers for the word 'forensic', so they started providing all these courses. It's dressing up science so they almost don't know they're doing it. I have a lot of time for that approach. If it gets someone interested and helps keep them studying science that's great, because we've a real problem retaining young people in science."

The trouble is that forensic science doesn't actually exist. "Instead there is science applied to the solution of forensic problems," Professor Black says.

"There's a real misunderstanding about this. Having been hooked by the subject, kids then think forensic science is a discipline in its own right. It's not. But that hasn't stopped universities from selling courses with 'forensic' in the title to school-leavers. Last time I looked, there were 400 such courses around the UK, some of them with as many as 250 students in first year."

One serious problem with all this forensic learning is the superficial nature of the science being learnt, she says. "If you do science only in a forensic context you don't get the depth of understanding of physics, chemistry, biology or maths that you need in a forensic science job. Instead, you get a superficial understanding of lots of different things."

In terms of careers the reality is almost exactly opposite of what young people might expect. "If you have no desire to go into forensic science as a career, then a forensic science degree is great. It gives you a taste of different sciences and their application. But if you are serious about a career, then you have to look at what the employers want."

The House of Commons science and technology committee recently took evidence from chief constables, forensic science labs and expert practitioners, such as Professor Black herself (see panel). "They asked if they would prefer a graduate in one of the sciences or from one of these forensic science courses. Every single chief constable said: 'I want the biologist, the chemist, the physicist. We will then teach them how to apply their depth of science to our problems'."

This might seem surprising, since most physicists, for instance, leave university with no idea how to use their hard-earned understanding at a crime scene.

"That's not important," Professor Black says. "If you apply for a job in a forensic science lab, that demonstrates your interest. They then train you in their techniques, to take your level of understanding and apply it."

This is not simply a matter of opinion, Professor Black says. "It is supported by the progression statistics from the universities. You also have to consider the complex employment situation we now have in forensic science in the UK."

Scotland has a publicly-funded national system of forensic labs, she says, but England, with far more opportunities for employment, does not.

"The government closed the forensic science service for cost-cutting reasons. England is now, I believe, the only country in Europe with no government forensic science labs," she explains.

"Commercial providers were supposed to do the job. But since there were only two, they could charge what they liked. Police forces were concerned that many cases would become too expensive to investigate, so a number set up their own forensic science units. On top of that, one of the major providers is going to make significant cutbacks soon, because they've just lost a couple of large tenders to a new company, which has undercut them with a bid everyone knows they can't deliver at the price.

"It's a complete mess. But that is the work environment our school-leavers need to understand when they are making their choices - and careers teachers need to get their heads around when they advise them."


Professor Sue Black will deliver a session at this year's ASE Scotland conference entitled A tale from the crypt: "In 1991, I exhumed the remains of 60 individuals from lead coffins in a church in London. The contents of one coffin in particular were to lead to research and personal friendships that could not have been imagined."

Crieff Hydro Hotel, 8-9 March.


Digging up dead bodies and studying them to find out how they died or lived - and who they were - sounds fascinating but gruesome.

"My first job when I was at school was working in a butcher's shop," Professor Black explains. "So from the age of 13, working with blood, tissue and bone has never caused me any concerns.

"When I went to university I really enjoyed biology. Then when we started dissecting the human body, I found it such an amazing adventure that I knew anatomy was my way forward. My research took me into identification and that's what forensic anthropology is all about - identifying who the deceased were.

"So I spent a week recently with my team in Old Monkland Cemetery in Lanarkshire, looking for the remains of little Moira Anderson, who disappeared in 1957 at the age of 11. Exhuming and examining bodies is what we do."

Forensic science in Scotland: bit.ly12S6hBg.

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