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40 Years Of Forensic Science - What Has Changed?

40 Years Of Forensic Science - What Has Changed?

Forty years of forensic science expertise - what has changed? Keith Borer Consultants former forensic biologist Dr Duncan Woods reflects

KBC is celebrating 40 years of forensic expertise in 2020.  As part of our celebrations, we invited Dr Duncan Woods, former Forensic Biologist with the company, to share his thoughts on what has changed during that time:

"Forty years have seen KBC grow into one of the longest established commercial providers of forensic science in England/Wales and possibly the UK.  This has been a considerable achievement for a commercial company, largely reliant on public funds to provide a public service.  Especially when one remembers that in 1979 almost all forensic science was provided by the Home Office.

"A lot can change in forty years – then, petrol cost 28p per litre, a pint of milk was 17p and a pint of beer was 35p.  The average salary for a forensic scientist has risen from about £5000 to around £27000, and there have been massive changes in how those professionals are (or are not) utilised by criminal justice systems.  There have been huge improvements in methods and technologies.  Hours spent deciphering blood grouping results have been replaced by mass automated generation of DNA profiles, with the added ability to then search the profiles of millions of people for a match.

"While many of the observational or interpretive forms of forensic science, like blood pattern interpretation, textile fibre comparison and footwear marks, have become neglected, emphasis has shifted to methods with capacity to identify suspects (fingerprints and DNA) and digital forensics.  The concept of digital forensics didn’t exist in 1979, when a mobile phone the size of a house brick would have seemed like space age science.  Now the rapidly increasing capacity of digital forensic techniques to recover and sift vast quantities of digital records has, in itself, created knock-on problems for the human component of criminal case progression; most recently seen with analysis of phone records in contested sexual offence cases.

"In general, the broader scientific community has provided methods to forensic science that have kept pace with the requirements of the various criminal justice systems in which KBC works.  Forensic practitioners have then employed those methods with considerable expertise to provide vastly improved capacity to identify suspects, trace their movements and contacts, and decipher what happened at crime scenes in ways that could not have been imagined 40 years ago.  And the pace of change seems set to accelerate (look out for increased use of AI, biometric data, facial recognition and more DNA technologies).

"At risk of playing a 'good old days' card, there have also been professionally distressing developments in forensic science, largely since 2010.  This period has seen a move away from prosecutions based on the evidence of forensic experts tasked with maximising the evidential potential using the available test methods, to a more minimalist service concentrated on bulk provision of test results.  This has been accompanied by greater emphasis on economic than evidential considerations.

"For most cases the results are routinely provided to the CJS with either no expert evidential assessment of value, or perhaps a narrow assessment that rarely fully reflects the case circumstances.  There can be no doubt that over that last 10 years, in the UK, a comprehensive expert forensic science profession has been forced to dwindle to a more minimal analytical process.  This is something that KBC has fought at every turn of the political page, at the same time as seeking to provide experts to plug evidential gaps and accurately interpret evidential significance for the courts.

"On a personal note, it has been an immense privilege to have been allowed to spend 30 of those 40 years in a fascinating and intellectually rewarding career, crawling through murder scenes, examining exhibits and pulling evidence together for testimony at court (and it is nothing like what is portrayed by ‘Silent Witness’!).  That work has introduced me to many highly motivated individuals throughout UK forensic providers; dedicated people concerned with fairly and impartially presenting forensic evidence.

"While this was an exciting time to be a forensic scientist, I am sure the next 40 years will be at least as varied and rewarding, for those seeking such a career.  With luck and dedication, in 40 years’ time, my successors will be writing not only about the increased price of a pint of beer and average salaries, but also how their expertise and determination had, in many tangible ways, sought to improve to quality of criminal justice and prevent potential miscarriages of justice."

 

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Keith Borer Consultants is a division of Orchid Cellmark Ltd, a company registered in England at 16 Blacklands Way, Abingdon, OX14 1DY.

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